Gus Van Sant’s film “Milk” offers a vivid account of last eight years of the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to significant public office in the United States. Moving to San Francisco in 1970, at the age of forty, Milk soon became active in the political organizing that led to his election to the Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was at the forefront of a turbulent national debate about civil rights for gay and lesbian people when he and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White, Milk’s former colleague on the Board of Supervisors, on November 27, 1978.
The notorious “Twinkie defense” at White’s trial in 1979 has generated a tremendous amount of commentary — and given rise to misleading myths and misconceptions. In popular consciousness, the notion took hold that White was convicted only of manslaughter for the double assassination because eating an inordinate amount of junk food (such as Twinkies) had caused him to become depressed, and therefore incapable of the premeditation necessary for a murder conviction.
In fact, Twinkies were never mentioned in the courtroom. The defense’s psychiatrist testified that White’s reliance on junk food was one of several symptoms of depression. Other factors included quitting his job, avoiding his wife, and becoming slovenly in appearance. White was paroled in January 1984, after serving only five years in prison for the double homicide. Less than two years later, in October 1985, he committed suicide, leaving a note saying he was sorry for the “pain and trouble” he caused.
Van Sant’s film, with Sean Penn as Milk, neither flinches from depicting the assassinations nor dwells on them. The focus is on Milk’s participation in the bruising and demanding politics of California in the 70s. His contribution extended beyond the Bay Area to an active role in successfully opposing a proposed statewide referendum that would have allowed public employees to be fired for suspected homosexual activity.
In this tumultuous political climate, Milk’s important victories often came at great personal cost. I’m referring here not merely to the courage he showed in the face of death threats, or to his senseless murder by White. The private cost of public engagement can affect any public figure, gay or straight. But striking a balance between public and private was particularly challenging for a pioneer like Milk, at a time when gay relationships were still emerging from the shadows. Toward the close of the film, in a touching scene involving the opera “Tosca,” Milk seemed to be moving toward some sort of rapprochement between his public and private selves — before his life was cut short.