Silent black and white images of police raids on gay bars flicker on the screen. Men bury their heads in their arms, cover their faces with their hands, and try to hide from the cameras as they’re shoved into paddy wagons. One frightened man throws the contents of a glass into the lens.
That’s the opening scene of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, and it pretty much drags you by the hair right into the nightmare of shame and fear that gay men lived in the pre-Stonewall era, and even afterward. And while the footage was emotionally shocking to many in the audience, no one wondered why it was there. It was a political statement, and this, after all, is the most eagerly awaited political film in gay movie history.
Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones
If you’ve heard the wait was worth it, you’ve heard right; Milk is a political powerhouse. But although not too many people are talking about it, the film is something else, too: a love story.
Not just any love story, either. It takes the real life relationship of Harvey Milk and Scott Smith and adds a little bit of movie-making magic, using it to tell the story of a hero who became a martyr, and the moment in our history when the love that once dared not speak its name became the love that wouldn’t shut up.
James Franco as Scott Smith and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
The love story begins in a New York City subway station in the 70s. A man in a business suit, with big ears and a gawky frame, stops a curly-haired, mustached younger guy as they pass on the steps. "I’m Harvey," he tells him.
"Okay, Harvey," he says, but it’s clear he’s about to walk away.
Harvey is undeterred. "Today’s my birthday …. Well, tonight. At midnight."
The smile that lights up his face transforms him, and the other man smiles back. They banter and flirt, but eventually the brush-off comes. "Listen, Harvey," the younger guy says, "You’re kind of cute, but I don’t do guys over forty."
"Well, then, I’m in luck," Harvey answers, laughing. "Because I’m still 39, and it’s only eleven-fifteen." And then they kiss, Harvey clearly nervous – he’s an insurance salesman, they’re on a subway platform, and this guy? Maybe a little out of his league.
But something happens during that kiss. They touch, their eyes lock, and if this were a different kind of movie, this is when the violins would have started playing. Instead, Harvey asks the younger man his name. "I’m Scott," he answers.
The night Harvey met Scott and turned 40 was a watershed moment in his life. Cuddling in bed, between kisses and bites of birthday cake, Harvey confesses he’s never done a thing yet in his life that he’s proud of.
"You need some new friends, a new scene," Scott says as Harvey licks a little frosting off his face.
They find exactly that three thousand miles away, in San Francisco. The two men rent an apartment on Castro St., get a dog, and, in true hippy fashion, live on the proceeds of their unemployment checks. Harvey starts playing around with cameras, and one day he comes home to find a morose – and stoned – Scott cuddling with their dog on a pile of pillows in the bay window of their apartment.
Harvey straddles Scott’s legs, and playfully takes his photo while teasing him about opening a shop together, "like Morris and Minnie Milk of Woodmere, New York."