AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Director: Gus Van Sant (Dir)
Release Date:   Nov 2008
Duration (in mins):  127
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Cast: Sean Penn  (Harvey Milk)
  Emile Hirsch  (Cleve Jones)
  Josh Brolin  (Dan White)

Summary: In November 1978, ten days before his murder, San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk sits at his kitchen table making an audio recording to be played only in the event of his assassination. As the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the nation, Harvey acknowledges that he could be a victim of the hatred and homophobia still rampant throughout the country, but wants to leave behind an accurate record of his political experiences: Eight years earlier, in the New York City subway, Harvey, an insurance agent, picks up the charming and much younger Scott Smith. After the two have sex at Harvey’s apartment, he reveals that he is turning forty at midnight and laments that he has accomplished nothing with his life. He then expresses doubt that he will live to be fifty. When Scott encourages him to “change scenes,” Harvey agrees and soon after grows a beard and long hair and moves to San Francisco with Scott. Excited by the vibrant energy of the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and the burgeoning gay neighborhood on Castro street, Harvey and Scott open a camera store there. Despite being rebuffed by the neighborhood merchants, the men are completely open about their homosexuality, and Harvey resolves to form a gay business association to invigorate the community. Harvey’s eagerness draws several young men to the Castro Camera store including teenaged photographer Danny Nicoletta, Harvard graduate Jim Rivaldo, his friend Dick Pabich, Dennis Peron and, later, Michael Wong. Shrewdly assessing that gays would gain strength by demonstrating their economic clout, Harvey readily befriends the teamster representative of the truck drivers’ union, Allan Baird, who asks if Harvey might unite gays in boycotting beer companies refusing to renew union contracts. When Allan agrees to provide jobs for gay drivers in exchange for support, Harvey and his friends organize a ban in gay bars, concentrating on Coors beer when the company refuses to give in. Frustrated when Scott is injured in a police harassment assault, Harvey complains that gays must organize and fight prejudice as African Americans have done. Soon after Harvey announces his decision to run for city supervisor. During his campaign, which Scott manages, Harvey meets spunky young Cleve Jones, a hustler who rejects the older man’s invitation to defeat homophobia through activism. Later, Harvey and Scott call upon prominent attorney and gay journal publisher David Goodstein and his lover, wealthy civil rights lawyer Rick Stokes, seeking an endorsement. Chiding Harvey for his grass-roots efforts, Goodstein explains that they have made progress on gay rights by financially supporting gay-friendly liberal candidates and avoiding the overt lifestyle that characterizes the Castro district with its bathhouses and partying. Insisting that it is time for “one of their own” to be elected, Harvey retracts his request for support and maintains that the gay movement is more important, than any one individual. Although Harvey loses the election, he is determined to try again, this time cutting his hair and beard and wearing conservative suits. Despite losing again in the following year’s election, Harvey is heartened by the increase in votes and doggedly runs a third time. When Harvey’s campaign to “beat the machine” angers the Democratic party and their representative, Art Agnos, Harvey runs for the California State Assembly against Agnos. After a one-on-one debate, Agnos advises Harvey that his campaign is “depressing” and suggests that instead of continually emphasizing what he is against, he should clarify what he is for. Although Harvey loses to Agnos, Dick urges him to a run for supervisor as a new initiative will realign districts placing the Castro and Haight areas in Harvey’s district. Aware that Scott has grown weary of the unending campaigning, Harvey hesitates. To Harvey’s surprise, young Cleve returns to the camera shop. After revealing that while visiting Spain, he was astounded to witnesses a group of gays resist violence during a gay march, Cleve says that he now is motivated to activism. Soon after, Harvey and his friends watch a Florida election centering on an initiative to repeal a four-month-old ordinance protecting gays against job discrimination. Led by singer turned religious conservative spokeswoman Anita Bryant and the Christian backed Moral Majority, the initiative passes, angering gays throughout San Francisco. Applying Agnos’s advice, Harvey makes “hope” his campaign message for his fourth run for supervisor this time against Rick Stokes in the newly aligned District 5. Meanwhile, former policeman and fireman Dan White runs in the working-class, conservative, white District 8, proclaiming that it is time to end the “malignancies” of radicals and social deviates blighting the city. Admitting that he can no longer deal with Harvey’s dedication to politics, Scott breaks with him and moves out. Despite his sadness over Scott, Harvey nevertheless throws himself into his new campaign and recruits lesbian Anne Kronenberg as his new campaign manager. Mildly scorned by Harvey’s support team, Anne nevertheless impresses everyone when she garners Harvey an endorsement in the all important San Francisco Chronicle . When the others go off to celebrate, Harvey remains in the shop, where he meets a drunken but appealing Jack Lira, and the men begin an affair that night. Harvey wins the November 1977 elections and both he and Dan are sworn in by Mayor George Moscone the following January. Assessing that Dan’s severe political stance might be softened by friendly debate, Harvey agrees to appear on a morning television show with him, even though his aids assure him that the former fireman is too rigid ever to adjust his views. Surprised when Dan invites Harvey and the other supervisors to the christening of his son, Harvey attends and is the only supervisor to do so. After the ceremony, Dan asks Harvey if he will help him block the building of a psychiatric center in his district, and Harvey vows to work with him. Soon after, Anne informs Harvey that Bryant’s conservative group is supporting an initiative by California Senator John Briggs to fire all gay teachers and anyone who supports them. Despite Jack’s continual hostility to Harvey’s long hours, Harvey enthusiastically takes on the religiously conservative Briggs and proposition 6. In a meeting with Representative Phil Burton, Goodstein, Stokes and others who had formed two gay-friendly groups against Briggs, Harvey angrily denounces Burton’s anti-proposition 6 brochure, which mentions human rights but avoids references to gays. Later, at a meeting with volunteers and supporters, Harvey insists that gay power lies in being as visible as possible. At city hall, Dan is angered when Harvey refuses to vote against the psychiatric center and laments what he views as the shifty nature of politics. After the Moral Majority scores successes in Iowa and Kansas in repealing employment protection for gays, Harvey, in need of a modest issue to create positive publicity and visibility in the city, proposes an ordinance to clean up city parks of dog feces. Later, when a gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance put together by Harvey and fellow liberal supervisor Carol Ruth Silver comes to a board vote, Dan, still resentful over Harvey’s betrayal on the psychiatric center, is the only one to vote against it. When a victorious Harvey then visits Dan’s office, Dan bitterly scoffs that Harvey only offers help if he can get something in return. Dan then challenges Harvey to introduce a supervisor pay raise measure, pointing out that while as Dan cannot raise a family on his meager salary, it is an issue that Harvey does not face. Harvey celebrates his forty-eighth birthday and the passage of the anti-discrimination measure with a large party at city hall where Scott mildly chastens him for continuing to live with the erratic, petulant Jack. To Harvey’s surprise, at the party’s end, a drunken Dan appears and praises the popular dog park ordinance, then acknowledges to Harvey that he has a political advantage by having a ready issue in being gay. Some time later, appearing in the gay pride parade despite a death threat, Harvey gives an impassioned speech on the steps of city hall about breaking down cultural and social myths, asserting that the U. S. constitution also serves gays. Meanwhile, Dan is interviewed on television criticizing nudity in the gay parade. After challenging Briggs to a debate, Harvey squares off with him in northern California where Briggs compares homosexuality to bestiality and insists that gays want to “recruit” straight children. Later, Harvey insists on a second debate in the heart of religious-conservative Orange County. On the afternoon of the city park ordinance vote, Harvey is distracted by Jack repeatedly telephoning him, demanding to know exactly when he is returning home. Running into Dan afterward, Harvey attempts to discuss voting issues, but Dan insists he will note trade votes, but follow his conscience and will not be demeaned or humiliated. At home later, Harvey finds the stairwell papered with handwritten notes from Jack, then, to his horror, discovers that Jack has hanged himself. Determined to fight on, Harvey continues organizing against the Briggs initiative, but his supporters remain concerned about the possibility of defeating it. On the night of the elections, Harvey and the others are stunned to learn that proposition 6 has not only been defeated in San Francisco but throughout California. In a celebratory speech afterward, Harvey emphasizes that the defeat has given hope to many persecuted gays. A few days later, a frustrated Dan resigns from the board of supervisors, only to change his mind ten days later and request that Moscone reinstate him. Suspecting that Dan has been coerced by the conservative police association, Harvey meets with Moscone to insist that Dan, the board’s main obstructionist, not be reappointed. A few days later, Dan learns from a reporter that Moscone has decided not to reinstate him. The following morning, Dan goes to city hall, entering through a ground level window. Upon meeting with Moscone, Dan pleads for reinstatement. When rejected, he takes out his a pistol and shoots the mayor. Walking to the opposite end of the building, Dan then asks Harvey to step into his old office and, without comment, shoots him. That night, when a stunned Anne and Scott arrive at a sparsely attended memorial service at city hall, Scott bitterly wonders if anyone cares. Walking back to the Castro, however, the pair is stunned to come upon a candlelight parade of thousands of mourners quietly making their way to city hall to honor Harvey and Moscone. At the close of his audio recording, Harvey recalls receiving a telephone call from a young man in Altoona, Pennsylvania thanking him for his work for gay rights and Harvey’s final plea is that gays must have hope. 

Distribution Company: Focus Features
Groundswell Productions
Production Company: Axon Films
Groundswell Productions
Jinks/Cohen Company
Director: Gus Van Sant (Dir)
  David Webb (1st asst dir)
  John R. Saunders (2d asst dir)
  Ian Calip (2d 2d asst dir)
  Cindy A. Taylor (Addl 2d asst dir)
Producer: Barbara A. Hall (Exec prod)
  William Horberg (Exec prod)
  Dustin Lance Black (Exec prod)
  Bruna Papandrea (Exec prod)
  Michael London (Exec prod)
  Dan Jinks (Prod)
  Bruce Cohen (Prod)
Writer: Dustin Lance Black (Wrt)

Subject Major: Assassination
  Harvey Milk
  San Francisco (CA)
Subject Minor: Bars
  New York City
  Political campaigns
  Protest marches
  Television news and information
  Trade unions

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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