Harvey Milk Lives

By Paul VanDeCarr | April 1, 2008
Milk campaign poster Campaign poster featuring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk

FilmInFocus visits the set of Gus Van Sant's Milk.

Harvey Milk is larger than life. On a recent Monday night, I'm watching him on screen at San Francisco's grandest movie house, the Castro Theatre, in Rob Epstein's 1984 Oscar-winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk." And it's not just the size of the screen — Harvey Milk has attained a mythic status here, the city where he settled in 1972, became a prominent gay activist and later city politician, and was shot to death in City Hall in 1978. This brilliant documentary in many ways formed the legend of Harvey Milk, but with the passage of time, fewer and fewer people know his story, even here.

One or another feature film about Milk has been in discussions for at least 15 years but now, finally, one simply titled Milk is being made, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn in the title role. The screening of the documentary tonight is meant to educate and inspire the audience before they go outside and become movie extras to reenact two protest marches for Van Sant's film — one led by Milk, and another by his protégé Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch). Much as I want to take part, I've come to observe.

The real Cleve Jones, who is historical consultant to the production, is here tonight too to get the hundreds of extras into character. He tells the crowd the original marches happened in response to the repeal of gay rights ordinances in Florida and Kansas. It was bad enough that gay rights were being curtailed elsewhere, but the bigots were headed for San Francisco, the one place in the country gays and lesbians had carved out for themselves. An initiative by State Senator John Briggs was being put on the ballot to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California's public schools. "So the mood on the street was pissed off," explains Jones. "And that's what you are tonight. You're pissed off!"

Extras recreate a 1978 protest march on the set of Milk

Extras recreate a 1978 protest march on
the set of Milk

"Gay people, fight back!" "Civil rights or civil war, gay rights now!" — Jones leads the crowd in chants. Someone from the seats offers up, "Hey hey, ho ho, Anita Bryant has got to go!" referring to the singer who led the anti-gay campaign in Florida. The crowd sounds more and more angry, and within moments they're ready to take to the streets. The assistant directors have everyone file out onto the intersection of Castro and Market — long the default meeting point for gay protests — where a PA system has been set up to issue instructions about what to do and where to move. In order to recreate the look of the era, the neighborhood has been given a makeover. Signs at the local Chevron show gas prices are down to 58 cents a gallon, and the famed Toad Hall bar is back in business, as are the Castro Launderette and the Double Rainbow ice cream shop.

Watching the recreated march from the sidewalk, Rob Epstein recalls being at the real thing. "That chant 'out of the bars and into the streets' had such power," he says. "It was incomprehensible why everyone wouldn't be out on the street, because it felt so raw and immediate." Epstein tells me his documentary "was really about the 'public Harvey', and Gus's film is going to show so many more dimensions to the 'person Harvey'."

Others who knew Milk are out watching or taking part as well. I approach a man in — it must be said — a fabulous sequined outfit, which I learn is of his own making. Gilbert Baker came to San Francisco as an Army nurse in 1970 and stayed on after his service; he became friends with Milk several years later. Baker sewed banners for protests in the 1970s — as well as for the film's staged marches — and created the gay community's iconic Rainbow Flag. "So many people came to San Francisco because they were in terrible situations, hopeless situations," he says. "Harvey would give voice to your feelings, your rage as a gay person."

In the background is the crowd of protestors. Hundreds of fists are pumping in the night air. Towering behind them is the Castro Theatre marquee, for decades a great neon beacon to the hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians who've moved here. After the next take, I chat with some of the extras and discover that one of them is Anna Damiani, who arrived in 1977 "as a refugee from Anita Bryant." When the actual San Francisco march was taking place, she was in the crowd at a hotel ballroom in Miami, watching the returns on the anti-gay referendum there. "We were losing badly," she recalls with a wince. "And then we looked up and saw these video screens broadcasting marches in cities around the country, including San Francisco, which was huge. We realized they were for us. So here we are tonight, recreating that very same scene, and it's really emotional."

The memorial march following Harvey Milk's assassination is restaged for Gus Van Sant's movie

The memorial march following Harvey Milk's
assassination is restaged for Gus Van
Sant's movie

Milk, who owned a camera store in the Castro, ran for office three times unsuccessfully before becoming a Supervisor (like a councilman) in 1977, and one of the nation's first openly gay elected officials. His new status at City Hall gave him a platform, which he used tirelessly, to help defeat the Briggs Initiative in November of 1978. That victory was only the beginning of an eventful month. Less than two weeks later, over 900 followers of Rev. Jim Jones — most of them from San Francisco — died by murder and suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. The city was still reeling from that tragedy when, nine days later, the news came that both Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down by a just-resigned fellow Supervisor whose relationship with Milk had soured in recent months. That night, in a state of collective shock and grief, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in a silent candlelight march from the Castro to City Hall. Presciently, Milk had recorded a "political will," naming a successor in office should he be assassinated. He also said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

"I always knew I was gay, but Harvey Milk's assassination made me come out," says Henry, another extra in the film. It is now the Thursday night after the first protest scene was filmed, and about eight blocks down Market Street away from the Castro. Milk is staging a recreation of the memorial march, and Henry has come to take part. He is dressed in what he calls his "standard drag" — a well-worn denim jacket with a large rainbow patch on the back, which itself dates back to the 1970s. Not just Henry's clothes, but the location of the night's filming retains the gritty appearance of San Francisco in years past — a parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence, an old hotel, an undeveloped side street. During the reenactment, the marchers file past a camera in the middle of the street, solemn expressions all, and raise their candles in unison. Even as a recreation, it's a genuinely moving tribute to Milk and his legacy; I can't help but think about how those thousands of candles, when their light is passed from screen to screen in theaters around the world, will be multiplied into the millions. Henry says he signed up to be an extra in the march because "it's part of my heritage."

Henry is but one of the thousands of unpaid extras taking part in the recreations. "They came to express their love for their city and their respect for Harvey Milk," says producer Bruce Cohen. "I'm happy to say that this shoot has really connected with people here. Every day some person stops by or remembers where they were, or were friends with Harvey, or have a story to tell, or their lives were touched. And when you're surrounded by that — the director, the writer, the actors — you can't quantify the value of that to the soul of the film."

Snapping photos nearby is Dan Nicoletta, being portrayed in the film by Lucas Grabeel. Nicoletta was a young photographer when he first walked into Harvey Milk's camera store in 1975, and the two became close friends. In a poignant parallel, Nicoletta captured much of Milk's last few years in pictures, and he's also photographing on the set of the film. In between takes, he stops to talk. "One of the reasons this project is so charged is that we all understand the work that we're doing here, and what a great honor and opportunity it is to carry on Harvey's work." Then, reflecting on Milk's fame, Nicoletta adds, "We need our heroes."

Over a thousand people gather to hear Sean Penn (as Milk) address them in a re-enactment of the 1978 Gay Freedom Day rally

Over a thousand people gather to hear
Sean Penn (as Harvey Milk) address them
in a re-enactment of the 1978 Gay Freedom
Day rally

Those words are still with me on a beautiful Sunday morning two weeks later, as I go to watch a final crowd scene being filmed outside City Hall. A stage has been set up at the entrance facing Civic Center, where a crowd of perhaps a thousand people has gathered. They are recreating the 1978 Gay Freedom Day rally. A voice I take to be that of the first assistant director calls out over the PA system, advising the crowd, "Feel it! Live it!" And then, "Action!" The crowd erupts in applause and cheers, and out onto the stage strolls Sean Penn, looking an awful lot like the man I've seen so many times in archival footage and photos — the clothes, the hair, the gestures, and then his voice saying, "My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you." As he delivers his speech, I realize this is the closest I'll ever come to seeing Harvey Milk in the flesh. For the moment, I abandon my role as observer, and join in applauding his message.

Milk's contemporaries say that his work — the gay rights ordinance and other legislation he authored, his message of hope, his call for gay men and women to come out of the closet, his interest in diversifying government, his activism — helped make way for some of the freedoms we enjoy today, and which we may take for granted. His specific contribution may sometimes be forgotten, even if the results are still with us. Or, sometimes, Milk is lionized and his achievements put out of reach.

"I think it's important to understand that Harvey Milk was not a saint," Cleve Jones told me weeks ago now, as we stood by the march scene at the corner of Castro and Market Streets. "But he was courageous, he truly cared about people, and he gives us an example of how an ordinary person can change the world." Milk may have become a legend, and Gus Van Sant's picture will likely only magnify that legend; that's what movies do. But with any luck, the film will also make a man out of Harvey once again.

Paul VanDeCarr is a freelance writer on the arts (especially film and theater), and a researcher/writer for foundations and nonprofits, especially in the areas of the arts, health, and community economic development. He also produces short films.

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