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Originally published Sunday, November 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Screenwriter sees "Milk" as a story of hope

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black talks about his personal mission to bring the story of Harvey Milk to the screen. "Milk," starring Sean Penn, opens at Seattle-area theaters Wednesday, Nov. 26.

Seattle Times movie critic

More Milk

TO LEARN MORE about the politician and activist:

"The Mayor of Castro Street": A biography by Randy Shilts (St. Martin's Griffin, $16.95 paperback).

"The Times of Harvey Milk": The Academy Award-winning 1984 documentary, now available on DVD (88 minutes. Not rated):

Movie preview


Opens Wednesday at the Egyptian and Lincoln Square. Find Moira Macdonald's review Wednesday in the NW Life section or online at

"You have to give people hope."

— Harvey Milk, concluding a speech in 1978

Thirty years ago this week in San Francisco, city supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered at City Hall by former supervisor Dan White. Milk, a gregarious 47-year-old native of Long Island, was the country's first openly gay man elected to a major public office. His election in 1977 was cause for wild celebration; a year later, on the night of his murder, 30,000 people assembled for a silent, haunting candlelight vigil.

Those who've seen Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" know this story, with some of its moments seared into our memories: City supervisor Dianne Feinstein, her eyes dazed and moist, haltingly telling a sea of cameras that Milk and Moscone have been shot and killed; the procession of candles in the quiet dark, stretching endlessly to the horizon; the voice of Milk, raspy and passionate, telling audiences that they must embrace hope, not fear.

"Milk," the first feature film about Harvey Milk's story, opens Wednesday, directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black and starring Sean Penn. It took three decades for the movie to come to pass, despite the obvious dramatic power of the story — and it came from a young man who wasn't even born when Milk was killed, but who came to regard the politician as a hero.

Black began working on the screenplay "at least four years ago," he said on the phone last week. As a shy, closeted gay Mormon teenager from Texas whose family moved to San Francisco, he was fascinated one day to hear the story of Milk, an openly gay man who was celebrated by his community.

"For many years, it was a story that gave me that little bit of hope," he said. "I would hearken back to it; it kind of lived in the back of my mind. I'd think, there are some people who live to tell this dark secret, and they don't get shamed by their peers, they don't lose their families."

After years of keeping Milk's story close to his heart, Black finally began to work on the screenplay in earnest after a meeting with Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist who had been a close friend and protégé of Milk. Writing on spec (in the early years of the project, no studio was paying him or had even indicated interest), Black found and interviewed as many of Milk's associates as he could, assembling a life for the screen.

Getting into Milk's mind

Though Milk's early life was eventful ("He was this pretty progressive kid, definitely pushing things forward as a 13-year-old boy"), Black decided early that the film couldn't dwell on Milk's 20s and 30s. The screenplay moves quickly to Milk's arrival in San Francisco in 1972 with his lover Scott Smith, where they opened a camera store in the Castro district and Milk became involved in neighborhood politics. He ran three losing campaigns before the 1977 victory, when the city was divided into neighborhood voting districts (rather than citywide positions).

Black structured the film around a document that Milk left behind: his political will. Shortly after his election, Milk dictated three cassette tapes that he labeled simply, "In case." He had long known that an openly gay politician was a target and was accustomed to hate mail and death threats.

In the tapes, which begin with the words, "This is to be played only in the event of my assassination," he describes his wishes for who should succeed him in office and his preferences for a funeral. Black begins the film with a quiet scene of Penn as Milk, slumped over the tape recorder late at night in his Castro kitchen, followed quickly by the newsreel footage of Feinstein announcing the deaths.

"Of the things I knew I would use at the very beginning, I knew it would be the political will that he left," said Black. "I thought, OK, ... I'm going to do this very personal biopic of a man, where I want people to feel like Harvey is telling the story directly. By starting with the assassination, and the audience having the intimate knowledge that Harvey is going to be assassinated, it puts them in the same head space as our main character.

"They know at some moment it's going to happen, and will he accomplish what he needs to accomplish before it happens? Those two things together, the recorded will and the foreshadowing of the assassination, I think really put you in Harvey's mind."

Doing right by a hero

The film uses archival footage throughout — some familiar from "The Times of Harvey Milk," other newly uncovered for the film. Black said the idea began with Anita Bryant, then a fervid anti-gay activist who in 1977 ran a campaign to overrule a Florida gay-rights ordinance.

"I was transcribing Anita Bryant's interviews and her statements to the press, and I found her words to be almost unbelievable," said Black. "As a writer, I despise caricature, so I thought, how are we going to get any actress to say these lines and not come off like a caricature of a bigot? I thought we should let Anita speak for herself."

In condensing Milk's life for the screen, Black said he of course regrets some necessary omissions — most notably, the story of Milk's losing 1976 campaign for city supervisor, dubbed by the media as "Harvey Milk vs. The Machine." (During that campaign, Milk and Moscone transformed from political adversaries to friends.) But he feels he's done right by the man who's still a hero to him.

Milk used to invoke, as part of a stump speech, the idea of a young boy somewhere in "San Antonio or Des Moines," who would hear about an openly gay man being elected in San Francisco. That election, Milk said, would give the boy hope and two new options: He could go to San Francisco, or he could stay in San Antonio and fight.

"That speech, oh man, I have a tear in my eye right now," said Black, who said he used to know the entire speech by heart. "I really was the kid from San Antonio."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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