Starlight Movie Night: “Milk” (2008)

By Warren Kuhlman | September 20, 2021


Res Life in collaboration with Harvey House presented Starlight Movie Night with a showing of “Milk,” the 2008 film starring Sean Penn and James Franco. The event was paired with booths run by ABLE (Albany Business Leaders Emerging) and Project SHAPE, the university’s peer education program that provides sexuality and sexual health education. After students signed in and got some movie snacks, they could sit on Mohawk Courtyard to listen to music and talk with friends before the film started.


There was ample space for blankets to be spread out. As about 30-odd people mingled and bundled up on a crisp fall night, there was a light layer of clouds but not a drop of rain in sight. One group even circled around for a casual hacky sack game. As it got closer to the 9 o’clock showing, the opening chords to Billy Joel’s piano man incited an impromptu sing-along that passersby joined in on.


Then, it was time for Jake Evans, founder of Harvey House and Assistant Coordinator for the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center to speak on the importance of Harvey Milk to both queer history and UAlbany. Harvey Milk was a UAlbany alum from the time when the school was still called the New York State College for Teachers at Albany back in 1950.


After graduating and spending a few years working in Long Island, Milk went on to build a strong queer community in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. This led him to make the transition from the gay activist and unofficial mayor of the Castro to one of the first-ever openly gay U.S. public officials, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.


The film delves more into the latter half of his life starting on his 40th birthday. As Evans mentioned before the film was played for the students that Tuesday night, “The movie is important, but it isn’t necessarily a celebration of queerness.”


This is a part of history so it’s not a spoiler to say that this movie ends in the assassination of Supervisor Milk. The journey and outcome of these events are the reality of life 50 years ago, but it broke the barrier for progress to be made today.


Milk was directed by Gus Van Sant, known for “Good Will Hunting” (1997), and written by Dustin Lance Black, known for the docudrama miniseries “When We Rise” (2017). The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won two of them.


The film takes place over eight years from 1970 to 1978. As with all biopics, creative liberties were taken, but interspersed throughout the film was actual footage from the time period. Many of these clips pay homage to “The Times of Harvey Milk”, a documentary released a few years after the incidents occurred. The opening shot of both films includes the infamous video of Dianne Feinstein announcing the assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

Whereas the 1984 documentary focuses on Milk’s career, the 2008 film attempts to tell a more personal story. For example, Milk’s romantic relationships with Scott Smith (portrayed by James Franco) and Jack Lira (portrayed by Diego Luna) play a large role in the biopic.

The first act of the film follows Milk’s multiple attempts at running for office and eventual success. This part in Milk’s life took years, starting in 1973 until he finally won in 1977, but the film (for obvious reasons) had to jump-cut around a lot. If you don’t go into the film with at least a little background knowledge it may be a little hard to follow.

The second half of the film is where Proposition 6 is introduced; the legislation that proposed to allow employers to discriminate against teachers for their sexual orientation in California. During Milk’s battle against anti-gay politicians and religious leaders, he gained notoriety in places outside of San Francisco.

As Milk was thriving, Dan White (portrayed by Josh Brolin), a supervisor elected at the same time as Milk, was seeing a downward spiral of his life. White was an ex-firefighter who had made known that he did not support queer people and their rights to teach. Shortly after Proposition 6 fails in the vote, White resigns from his position. Regretting that decision he tried to take back his resignation only to find out the mayor has the final say.

The mayor’s decision not to reinstate White is what caused him to shoot both Mayor Moscone and Milk. At least officially that is what the judge and jury who convicted him of voluntary manslaughter decided.

All in all, the movie is a good way to be entertained while learning a little bit of history but as with most movies, take the events presented with a grain of salt. I would recommend watching it or showing it to someone who you think could benefit from it.

The film can be watched on various streaming platforms including Peacock, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV.


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