One of the year’s most overtly political films is “Milk,” the biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a significant office in the U.S.
Scripter Dustin Lance Black calls “uncanny” the parallels between the 1978 battle in the film over Proposition 6, which would have legalized housing and employment discrimination against homosexuals, and this year’s fight over Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that outlawed same-sex marriage. But it’s all the more so, says Black, because the script was finished and the movie shot before Prop. 8 was even an issue.
“You look at the campaign the Yes on 8 people put out there and it’s the same campaign Anita Bryant was waging starting in 1976, which was ‘Save Our Children’ and ‘Defend Our Children.’ It was effective for Anita Bryant in Dade County in 1977 and sadly it was effective (on Election Day 2008) in California.”
Black didn’t set out to make an on-the-nose treatment of contemporary events. On the contrary, he likes stories that approach current issues more indirectly, whether it’s a Batman movie or a biopic.
“It gives the audience the credit they deserve to make the connections themselves and be able to draw their own conclusions about what those parallels are. For me as an audience member, I don’t like to be preached at. I don’t like to be told what to think about the current political or economic or social crises. It’s great to see it in a distanced way because of the time that’s elapsed, or in a fictional way.”
Milk became a canny politician and learned to acquire power with humor, Black says.
“He understood if you could introduce yourself to someone who might be a homophobe and you could make him laugh, like he did with the union organizers and as he tried to do with Dan White, you might be able to win over their vote. You might even be able to change what they think about gay people. So he knew that his skills as a people person were going to help win this movement.
“He knew he could connect, much in the way that Barack Obama did in the debates. Most people connected with Barack Obama because he just seems more like a people person, a guy you’d like to hang out with. He seems friendly, warm. I can see those parallels between them.
“They’re also both populists. Barack Obama and Harvey Milk have the same message. And if you listen to their speeches, they’re very similar. They talk about two things: about hope and about the us’s. They say ‘hope’ more than any other politicians I’ve ever heard, and they talk about the groups and minorities of all kinds that need to come together to form this movement of the us’s.”