Every so often, events transpire in such a way that your life is forever changed.
You might run late for a meeting one day, catch a different train and come face to face with a childhood friend you haven’t seen in 20 years.
You might pull the lever on a slot machine with your last fifty cents and win the million dollar jackpot.
Or you might find yourself staring at a painting in a museum that suddenly, inexplicably alters the way you look at the world around you.
I had one of those moments last night.
UMB and I met up with Lee and Adam in Berkeley and headed into San Francisco for the evening. We met Othurme in the Castro district for dinner with the intent of catching the 10pm showing of the new movie, “Milk.”
I knew the basic story of Harvey Milk. In the sort of way that I could give you a two-sentence explanation of who he was: The first openly-gay man elected to a high-ranking office (City Supervisor of San Francisco). He was assassinated, along with mayor George Moscone, by a fellow Supervisor.
Knowing that Harvey lived in the Castro District, THE gay neighborhood, I thought it would be cool to see the show at the Castro Theater, which sits at the heart of the district.
We purchased our 10pm tickets at 8, walked past the 20 or so people already lined up for the show and headed to the pasta restaurant three doors down for dinner.
When we emerged from the restaurant next door, the line of ticket holders leading into the theater stretched down the block, all around a parking lot, back along the sidewalk two blocks down from the theater.
I had never been to the Castro Theater before, though I had wanted to, especially for the annual “Sound of Music” sing-a-long. I wasn’t sure how many people the theater held, but I had originally figured it would be around four or five hundred. There were twice that many people in the line ahead of us. A quick look on the iPhone revealed that it actually holds 1400. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we would likely not be able to sit together as a group.
They opened the doors, and we shrewdly decided to head directly for the balcony, rather than stand around downstairs looking for 5 seats together. We ended up with what I would consider the best seats in the house. Front row center of the second tier in the balcony. No one in front of us, plenty of leg room and a clear view of the entire space.
The theater itself is beautiful, with tons of Spanish-influenced architecture and murals and sweeping fabrics. At the center of the stage was a real-live organist entertaining the crowd with showtunes, and selections from The Carpenters, Barry Manilow, and of course, Over The Rainbow.
The lights lowered, the crowd fell silent, and the movie opened with actual news footage of then-City Superintendent-now-California-state-senator Dianne Feinstein standing on the steps of City Hall announcing to a crowd of reporters that George Moscone and Harvey Milk had been shot and killed.
The camera moves to a sweeping shot of San Francisco, zooming in on the Castro District, past the famous Castro Theater entrance to the apartment just 2 blocks down where Sean Penn, as Harvey, is speaking into a tape recorder. He’s recording a now famous “In case of death by assassination” speech that serves as the framework for the entire film.
I was already crying. I’m not sure that I ever actually stopped.
There was this surreal sensation from seeing the Castro Theater on the screen while sitting inside it. The seamless interweaving of stock 70’s footage of the police beating gay citizens on Castro Street right outside, and virtually every scene set in this neighborhood that I’ve spent countless hours in over the past 10 years.
What was most significant… and therefore life changing, was this sudden connection of these historical facts of which I was only somewhat aware, with the personalization of this story that was unfolding on screen.
It’s like reading about the Battle at Gettysburg then suddenly smelling cordite, sulpher, and fresh blood and transporting through time to watch from the front line.
The struggle that Harvey went through to not only gain the respect of the fairly unorganized gay community was clearly illustrated. Gus Van Sant, the director, did an incredible job of reminding the audience of the political climate. Even in San Francisco in the early 70’s, the police harassed people in gay bars, many were beaten and killed, lost their jobs, and faced daily dangers just walking the streets of this mostly Irish-Catholic neighborhood.
Some men are born great; others achieve greatness; still others have greatness thrust upon them. — Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
The parallels between the political nightmare of Proposition 6, (part of the giant Anita Bryant brigade, which would make it illegal for any homosexuals, or even supporters of gay rights, from being able to teach kids in public schools) and Proposition 8 from this past election are unmistakable.
The difference is, we don’t have a Harvey Milk to lead us. We have struggled to stir the anger and frustration and express it in such a demonstrative way that it makes a difference.
Harvey figured out how to motivate and keep mobs of gays from destroying the city when anti-gay legislation passed. Instead, he lead them five miles up Market Street to the steps of City Hall, chanting and carrying signs demanding action.
This was the genesis of the Gay Freedom Parade that is celebrated in cities across the globe.
He demonstrated the power of gay consumers and the damage a boycott against those companies and organizations who would oppress us.
He encouraged the community to frequent those businesses that respect and value us. To this day, the gay community is among the most loyal to their brands.
He mentored a young man, Cleve Jones, who many years later organized the creation of the AIDS Quilt, one of the most striking, emotionally stirring visuals I’ve ever had the honor of seeing.
He explained the importance of coming out. How those people who actually know an out gay person as a friend or family member are twice as likely to vote to protect our civil rights.
I don’t expect that everyone who sees this film (and you are all going to see it right?) will experience the same profound reaction that I have. What I do expect, is that those who see it will come away with a new understanding of the struggle gay people in this country experience daily.
Sean Penn, who has never been one of my favorite actors, BECAME Harvey in this film. The supporting cast was impeccable. The script is full of clever banter, inspiring speeches, and even manages to make Dan White, Milk’s assassin, come across not as some evil movie villain, but as a flawed and frustrated young man who made a few poor decisions that changed the course of MY history.
The direct impact on my life that Harvey Milk has had is immeasurable. And until last night, viewing this movie, I had no idea.
Watching the film with my best friends, in a theater full of over a thousand people with these common struggles, common experiences, made the night absolutely magical.
I’ve learned a lesson that I can’t unlearn.
And I now have someone that I can thank.
If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door. –Harvey Milk