Thursday, February 19, 2009

Where Milk Gets It Wrong

Above: Josh Brolin as Dan White and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
in Gus Van Sant’s film, Milk.

Last weekend I finally saw Gus Van Sant’s film, Milk, which focuses on the final eight, politically charged years in the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to high public office in the U.S.

Without doubt, Milk is a well crafted and, in many ways, inspiring film. It features standout performances by Sean Penn (as Milk) and Josh Brolin (as Milk’s fellow San Francisco city supervisor and eventual assassin, Dan White). It’s understandable that Milk has been nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. Does it deserve to win? Well, not having seen the other contenders (with the exception of The Reader) I can’t really say. Still, I definitely recommend it.

I was particularly moved by Milk’s capturing of the spirit of the times – from the opening (real) footage of gay bar patrons in the 1960s being arrested and bundled into police vans, to the film’s recreation of the wild hairstyles and fashions of the ‘70s, and its reenactments of the various events that ensured both exciting progress and frustrating setbacks for the fledgling gay rights movement.

The film’s presentation of the Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative) debate in California was revelatory for me. And with recent events in California around Proposition 8, it really does feel, in some ways, like history repeating. The struggle for full civil rights for lesbian and gay people certainly continues. And Milk powerfully and artfully reminds us of this fact.

I was also quite moved by Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Dan White. It could have been so easy to present White as a garden variety homophobic right-wing zealot who goes over the edge. Yet as portrayed by Brolin, White is a conflicted, tortured individual; someone with whom you feel a certain empathy and concern. Well, at least I did.

And the cause of Dan White’s torment? Well, that’s where things get problematic for Milk. Van Sant and Milk co-writer Dustin Lance Black have Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk vocalize the belief that White is “one of us,” i.e., gay. Yet as a “good Catholic family man,” White is obviously closeted – perhaps even in large measure to himself. Accordingly, the film depicts Milk expressing sympathy with White for living “the daily lie.”

The only time we get a sense of White’s repressed sexuality is during a scene when he drunkenly confronts Milk. Just for a moment White’s heterosexual façade begins ever-so-slightly to slip. It’s an incredible performance by Brolin, ensuring that White comes across as heartbreakingly lost, conflicted, and . . . well . . . crying out for help. You just want to give him a big hug and tell him that it’s going to be alright. But, of course, it won’t be. We already know how this story ends.

And according to Van Sant and Black, it ends the way it does because Dan White is an uptight, closeted gay man who, in large part, kills Harvey Milk in a fit of (internalized) homophobic rage.

Yet the question has to be asked: How accurate is this portrayal of Dan White?

Well, in a December 2008 San Francisco Weekly article by John Geluardi, White’s former campaign manager Ray Sloan, takes issue with the idea that homophobia motivated White’s murderous actions. The most fascinating aspect of all of this is that Sloan is himself gay (although whether or not he was out – to himself or to others, including White – at the time of the events depicted in Milk is not clear).

Above: Ray Sloan (left) with Dan White (right),
White’s wife, and an identified Roman Catholic priest.

Here’s an excerpt from Geluardi’s article, “White Lies”:

[W]hen the filmmakers were doing research for the Milk script, they never spoke to Sloan. That may be because his existence creates a problem for the film’s premise, because Sloan is gay. That’s right, Dan White’s top confidante is gay.

Sloan says that over the past 30 years, White has been falsely portrayed as a murderous homophobe in order to enhance Milk’s legendary status as the most important gay rights leader in American history. But Sloan says White was not at all homophobic. He was just an unstable man who became homicidal when Milk and [Mayor] Moscone betrayed him politically.

Many historical facts about White were conveniently left out of the movie. After watching the film, you would never know that Dan White supported nearly all of Milk’s gay-friendly resolutions, he willingly contributed money to fight the Briggs Initiative, and he used his influence with Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein to get Milk appointed to two important committees. At the time, Milk’s legislative aide Dick Pabich told a gay newspaper that White “supported us on every position and he goes out of his way to find what gay people think about things.”

Above: Harvey Milk and Dan White.
Compare this photo of the two men conversing at
San Francisco City Hall to this post’s opening image
taken from Van Sant’s film.

“The film reflected a Dan White that I didn’t know,” Sloan said after the movie at Harvey’s Restaurant and Bar (named after the slain supervisor). “I am most appalled at the scene where Dan was supposed to be drunk. He was a teetotaler.”

But Sloan acknowledged the movie was powerful and that most of the events and characters were spot on, particularly actor Brandon Bryce’s portrayal of Milk’s political consultant, Jim Rivaldo, who was a close friend of Sloan’s.

In a previous article on White, Geluardi acknowledges that “while it’s possible that White was confused about his sexuality or was secretly homosexual . . . there is no evidence of either.”

So there you have it. I must admit I’m disappointed that both director Van Sant and writer Black chose to get it so wrong when it came to their film’s depiction of Dan White. It would seem that both director and writer are typical of that type of gay person who can’t help projecting their own orientation onto others. I know the type well, and they can be both annoying and tiresome.

Interestingly, the straight Josh Brolin doesn’t seem to share Van Sant’s and Black’s distorted perspective on White. In an interview it’s noted that:

During his research, Brolin never focused on whether White was a homophobe. “Personally, I think who cares because I don’t think that was his motive. I think if you look at the relationship, especially in the beginning, between [Harvey Milk] and Dan White, they come from . . . I mean, they’re polar opposites. Dan White was put in there, put in that situation by the Fire Department and by the Police Department to really bring back San Francisco to what it was founded on, this kind of white, super-white, Catholic mentality. It’s an impossibility. You just can’t do it. I don’t care what kind of politician you are. You can’t do it. And the gay and lesbian movement had taken its own life, and the hippie movement and all that. So, you know, he was given an impossible task. Also, he didn’t have the foresight; he didn’t have the wherewithal and the political skills to realize, ‘Hey, this is happening right now. It’s going to hit a peak. It will start to bleed into the mainstream, and then I’ll have my time,’ and to look for those opportunities. He just got more frustrated and more frustrated.”

“He was the big fish in the small pond in his district, then he was suddenly the very small fish in a huge sea of City Hall and he got more frustrated, but I think he tried to do the right thing,” explained Brolin. “That’s when I started seeing the human. He tried to. He was frustrated because he wanted more money and $9,600 a year, that’s nothing. He had the kids and the wife and all that and then at Pier 39, he started a little chip stand where he was trying to make more money. And then he tried to resign and then they [the Fire Department and the Police Department] wouldn’t let him resign. They were saying, ‘Get back in there. You have to do this for us. You are the great white hope.’ And then Mayor Moscone wouldn’t take him back in. So, I understand on a very human, basic level when all your power is taken away, and you’re sitting there and your legacy is just nothing, it’s dirt, with your family, with your friends, with your community, everything, and you think the only tangible thing I can do, the only garnering of power that I have left is to grab a gun, load the gun, point the gun, shoot the gun, kill the person, cause and effect. That’s the only tangible thing I can imagine at that moment. I don’t excuse it obviously, but I understand that desperation.”

Yes, and it’s a very different kind of desperation than the one that Van Sant and Black project upon White.

Look, no one doubts that homophobic closet cases exist and that they do untold damage to themselves and others. And unquestionably the “homophobic closeted gay man” angle elicited a powerful and moving performance by Josh Brolin - even if he himself doesn’t fully buy into it. It’s a performance that’s worthy of his Best Supporting Actor nomination at this year’s Oscars. But it’s a performance constructed on a deliberate mischaracterization of a real person - a mischaracterization crafted by two gay men (who really should know better).

Knowing all of this, I must admit I have a hard time hoping Brolin wins, and an even harder time taking seriously writer Dustin Lance Black’s assertion in
Milk: The Shooting Script, that “historical accuracy was always a top priority.” Mmm, I think Dan White’s family and friends - including at least one gay friend, would disagree.

So come Sunday night and the Oscars, I’ve decided to root for a Best Supporting Actor win for fellow Aussie Heath Ledger!

Recommended Off-site Links:
Dan White’s Motive More About Betrayal Than Homophobia - John Geluardi (San Francisco Weekly, January 29, 2008).
White Lies - John Geluardi (San Francisco Weekly, December 2, 2008).
Milk – A Review by Roger Ebert
Milk, Identity Politics, and Gus Van Sant’s Art - Joanne Laurier (World Socialist Web Site, December 9, 2008).


Maithri said...

Wow! An amazing and intelligent post... I need to watch this one,

Blessings of peace


Michael J. Bayly said...

Blessings of peace to you too, Maithri.

Thanks for stopping by and for your positive feedback. It's greatly appreciated.



Anonymous said...

Hear! hear! Well argued and researched, Michael. I too blogged on MILK this morning. The script was hardly "historical", and the script writer lifted and fictionalized with abandon. Speculation on the motivation of the murderer overshadowed the tragedy of the court case, and the accuracy in costuming is hardly the portrait of the times I was hoping to see. This was a Sean Penn vehicle, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Nowhere in the movie did Whites character confirm or lead to believe he was gay, closeted or confused or for that case a homophobe. The only mention of that possibility was from Milks camp, which was probably true, Milk probably said and believed those things, so I'm not even sure where your argument comes into play? This isn't a movie entitled White, it's Milk. We're going to hear what Harvey thought at the end of the day. So you're really just taking one characters view of another's as face value, which is not the case.

Unknown said...

Agree, I fully thought the murder was politically motivated. Disappointing to hear White's campaign Manager felt Brolin didn't remind him of the real Dan White. *Left wondering.