Milk man delivers
Out screenwriter Dustin Lance Black brings the story of slain city supervisor Harvey Milk to Hollywood.
If Harvey Milk were alive right now, he’d probably be standing on a street corner with megaphone in hand, trying to persuade citizens to vote against Proposition 8, the November ballot initiative that aims to overturn the California Supreme Court’s May decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
That’s according to screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. He’s bringing to the big screen the extraordinary life story of Milk, the first openly gay elected official of any major city, who in 1978 was assassinated in San Francisco, along with Mayor George Moscone, by district supervisor Dan White. The story of Milk’s murder, the trial that followed and the riots that ensued after White was given an eight-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter are SF legend, as is Milk himself. (His name lives on all over town at places like Harvey’s, a Castro restaurant, and at the Harvey Milk Institute, an organization that serves LGBT youth.) Now he will be indelibly immortalized on the silver screen thanks to Black.
A soft-spoken thirtysomething from San Antonio, Texas, Black became enamored of Milk’s story as a teenager after his family relocated to California’s Central Coast in the late ’80s. While spending his weekends working as a stagehand in San Francisco theaters, he learned about Milk’s story through locals eager to share what they knew about the groundbreaking politician. “I latched immediately onto the story,” Black says. “It definitely changed my life…. I knew it needed to be told. From there on out, I was just hungry for any information I could get.”
Black eventually discovered The Times of Harvey Milk, the Academy Award–winning 1984 documentary about Milk’s life, and learned more about the man through Cleve Jones, an activist and friend of Milk’s who started the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The idea of retelling Milk’s story remained dormant until 2004, when Black was tapped by HBO to work on Big Love, the show about a polygamist Mormon family. Armed with a steady paycheck, Black took off for the Bay Area on weekends and began meeting with former Milk cohorts, who, at first, were wary of the project. “[Writing the script] took a long time because people were skeptical,” Black says. “Over the years, so many artists and filmmakers and writers had interviewed them, and I think they’d been frustrated by projects not happening.” But in early 2007, Black showed his finished screenplay to Jones, who insisted on handing it over to a friend of his, director Gus Van Sant. “I was expecting [Jones to give the script to] some film student,” Black says. “A week later, Gus called me up and said, ‘I think this is great. Let’s make this movie.’ ”
Milk’s all-star cast includes Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as assassin White. It promises to be an emotional journey for gay audiences; for Black, the apotheosis of his journey was re-creating Castro Camera, the photo shop that doubled as Milk’s campaign headquarters.
“The day we took that camera shop down was the moment I realized we had finally successfully gotten the story told,” he says. “That’s the moment I really lost it. I just sat down on the curb and sort of let it out.”
Like its big gay predecessor Brokeback Mountain, the film is going to have wide appeal, Black predicts. “Harvey didn’t just appeal to gay people, he appealed to everyone,” he explains. “He was a true-blue populist. I love the stories of the old union guys who I interviewed who were like, ‘Yeah, he was a fruit, but I loved that guy. That was the best-tasting fruit I ever met.’ ”
Milk opens December 5.
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