“I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you — you gotta give ’em hope. You gotta give ’em hope.”
It’s at times like these that I try to remember these immortal words of my hero, Harvey Milk, uttered countless times as he ran for a position on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977 and ’78. Hope feels in scant supply today, but what’s the alternative? Nothing but despair? No thank you.
I thought rewatching the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the 2008 biopic Milk might remind me to keep looking for hope, but what surprised me is how eerily prescient the former still is.
First, a little background: Harvey is a queer icon, the first openly gay man ever elected to public office in California (and one of the first in the nation). He led the fight to defeat California’s Prop. 6, a virulently homophobic initiative in 1978 that would have barred gays — and even anyone who supported gay rights — from working in public schools. He and his political ally, Mayor George Moscone, were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, by fellow supervisor Dan White, who was convicted of manslaughter and served only five years in prison. His defense? Too much junk food, in part, in what was dubbed the “Twinkie defense.”
News of Harvey’s death spurred thousands to take to the streets in a peaceful, spontaneous candlelight march in his memory (and that of Mayor Moscone’s). But the miscarriage of justice in White’s trial led to a furious reaction, with $1 million in damages to City Hall, police cruisers and a gay bar.
You won’t find any mention of the so-called “White Night riots” in Milk, the biopic directed by Gus Van Zant and written by Oscar-winning Dustin Lance Black. It chooses to end on Harvey repeating his lines about hope, and it’s a valid choice — just not one I find as meaningful in these times.
But it is rewarding to watch both of these films. The biopic, naturally, puts most of its focus on Harvey as a man, and though I do wish a gay man had been cast, Sean Penn gives an immaculate performance, absolutely deserving of the Oscar he received. Penn’s known for his intense performances, and that remains true here, but he imbues Harvey with a softer, loving side too that’s true to the real man. (Though the openly gay Van Sant did cast most of his principal characters with straight actors, I find it perversely amusing that he cast openly gay Denis O’Hare in the role of Briggs.)
Milk is a surprisingly conventional biopic. I don’t think that bothered me when I saw it originally in theaters — I was just happy to see a wide release telling the story of my hero. But upon rewatching it, I wonder if Van Sant couldn’t have given it a little more of an experimental touch. Though, honestly, there is pleasure in the fact that a guy like Harvey is deemed worthy of the very conventional biopic.
If you have to choose one film, and I implore you to do at least that if you’ve never seen them, I’d go with The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein (who also directed The Celluloid Closet and, most recently, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice). It’s streamable, and it’s part of the Criterion Collection, so it should be easy enough for you to find.
It’s especially valuable now because of the discussion around the White Night riots. Voices from 31 years ago were making the same points we hear today, as rage continues to erupt following the death of George Floyd.
“People were outraged because this was property,” fellow activist Tom Ammiano says in the film. “You know, you can replace a goddamn glass door, you can replace a chandelier, you can replace a police car, but you can’t replace Harvey.”
“What the verdict did to our sensitivity was to say, you know it’s not importance to be civil in American society,” says Henry Der, a Chinese-American political activist, “and it’s not important to honor other people’s rights as long as you are white, and you uphold certain white middle class values because you are going to get away with murder. You’re going to be condoned.”
Yes, you’ve got to give ’em hope. It feels so hard to today, but we’ve got to keep trying.