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Film / Milk

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"My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you!"

Milk is a 2008 biopic film based on the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. Directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black, the film stars Sean Penn as Milk, with Emile Hirsch, James Franco, and Josh Brolin in supporting roles.

Using flashbacks from a statement recorded late in life and archival footage for atmosphere, this film traces Milk's career from his 40th birthday to his death. He leaves the closet and New York, opens a camera shop that becomes the salon for San Francisco's growing gay community, and organizes gays' purchasing power to build political alliances. He runs for office with lover Scott Smith as his campaign manager. Victory finally comes on the same day Dan White wins in the city's conservative district. The rest of the film sketches Milk's relationship with White and the 1978 fight against a statewide initiative to ban gays and their supporters from public school jobs.

Milk received numerous accolades, among them eight Academy Award nominations, of which it won two: Best Original Screenplay for Black, and Best Actor for Penn (his second Oscar).

Not to be confused with the drink, nor with the film Milk Money. Compare the acclaimed 1984 documentary about Milk, The Times of Harvey Milk.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Maybe a smidge, but the photo montage at the end shows that they got the likenesses really close. And the performances are excellent across the board, so it's easy to forgive.
  • Big Bad: Dan is the closest thing there is to one as the film progresses, getting increasingly frustrated at Harvey and serving as the most recurring thorn in his side, even more so than Briggs.
  • Broken Bird:
    • Jack has abandonment and attachment issues from his father beating him when he came out, which plague him throughout the film and ultimately cause his suicide.
    • It's implied Dan is as well, judging by Harvey's view of him.
  • Bury Your Gays: Justified in that this is a true story and Harvey really was assassinated by Dan White, but not because Harvey was gay. The real Dan went to City Hall intent on murdering the mayor over a political vendetta, which he did. In the process, he also ran into Milk, against whom he also held a political grudge.
    • Also averted, since almost every character with a speaking part in the film is gay, and are alive at the end.
    • Justifiedly played straight with Jack.
    • Also played straight with Scott Smith, who died of AIDS-related complications following the events of the film. Justified and Truth in Television.
  • Could Say It, But...: Harvey talks to Cleve about Prop 6 passing.
    Harvey: "I can't say it because I'm a public official, but if this thing passes, fight the hell back."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Harvey, not unlike his real-life counterpart was said to have been.
    Dan White: Can two men reproduce?
    Harvey: No, but God knows we keep trying!
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Aside from the obvious homophobia, several of the gay characters themselves are implied to be somewhat sexist (as exemplified by their uncomfortable introduction to Anne Kronenberg) and slightly racist, with Milk referring to Jack Lira as "Taco" and his Asian teammember as "Lotus Blossom."
  • Department of Redundancy Department: "He will be stabbed and have your genitals, cock balls and prick cut off."
  • Dining in the Buff: Harvey and his new boyfriend Scott share a birthday cake in bed.
  • Drag Queen: None of the major characters, but they can be seen in the background of all the major protests. And of course, performing in Harvey's larger-than-life final birthday party.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Apparently an appalling number of Harvey's lovers including Jack.
    • In the what-happened-after epilogue, we learn that White killed himself some years after being released from jail.
  • Enter Stage Window: To avoid metal detectors and get his gun into City Hall, Dan White climbs through a basement window. This actually happened on November 27, 1978.
  • Fanservice: Scott swimming naked in Dan White's pool. Heck, the opening shot of that scene is on his bare butt.
  • Five-Token Band: Along with Harvey Milk, an openly gay man, the Board of Supervisors that he becomes a part of includes Gordon Lau, a Chinese-American, and Carol Ruth Silver, a single mother.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Harvey Milk is killed. Actually, the film starts with the announcement of his assassination.
  • The Fundamentalist: State Legislator John Briggs and Anita Bryant.
  • Gay Aesop: Possibly a Trope Codifier.
  • Gayborhood: Justified due to the setting, since it was Harvey's base of political support. After all, Castro is the original Gayborhood.
  • Gay Conservative: According to Scott, Milk himself was originally one. A more played straight kind of example is David Goodstein.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?: Harvey views Dan's macho behavior as this, and as a shield.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Buckets of it. Rather expected due to the subject matter.
  • How We Got Here: The film is showing what happened leading up to the news of Harvey being killed.
  • Important Haircut: Harvey gets one of these, along with a shave, in order to get more votes.
  • Little "No": Harvey just as Dan pulls a pistol on him and shoots him dead. True to his character, he seems less frightened and more disappointed that his murderer would stoop so low.
  • Married to the Job: What causes a rift between Harvey and Scott.
  • May–December Romance: Harvey is in his early 40s, while at least one of his boyfriends appears to be in his early-to-mid 20s (who even starts their relationship by asserting he doesn't date guys over 40). It seems Jack is about Scott's age.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Well, more like "have the hypotenuse commit suicide." Jack's suicide, to be specific.
  • Nice Guy: Harvey. He's caring, empathetic, and rarely has a bad word for anyone.
  • Queer Romance: The film has two significant homosexual love stories.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The end credits includes photographs of the real people portrayed in the film.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: George Moscone.
  • Shown Their Work: The filmmakers used historical photographs of the actual events as a guide for certain shots and shot the scenes in the original locations, even going so far as to recreate Harvey Milk's camera shop at its original address. Some of the actors, most notably Sean Penn, even wore their characters' actual clothes during filming.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Judging by the scenes that weren't archive footage, there was exactly one (1) woman fighting for her rights alongside Milk. Even the crowd scenes had more drag queens than women.
  • Talking Down the Suicidal: Harvey talks Paul, a disabled gay kid, out of killing himself before his parent sends him off to a Cure Your Gays institution.
  • Theme Naming: By accident: Milk and White.
  • Those Two Guys: Plabich and Rivaldo - never get any screen time alone. The epilogue shows they became partners in a political consulting firm.
  • Token Lesbian: Anne Kronenberg, the campaign manager.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Harvey's preferred love interests.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Any of the black or Asian inhabitants of the Castro. Also, Jack Lira.
    • Harvey Milk himself; he was Jewish.
  • The Twink: Several examples - photographer Danny Nicoletta definitely qualifies, and Jack is more of a Broken Bird example. Cleve is depicted as one in his first appearance.
  • Waistcoat of Style: Harvey.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: At the end, pictures of the actual people depicted in the film, and brief summaries of their lives after the assassination are shown.
  • You Remind Me of X: Late in the movie, Harvey expresses his concerns to George Moscone about Dan White getting reappointed. Harvey even uses the "You will not be elected dog catcher" line.
    Moscone: You know who you sounded like just now? Boss Tweed. Or Mayor Daley.
    Harvey: (snickering) I like that. A homosexual with power. That's scary.