The highly-anticipated Milk made its world premiere in San Francisco on Tuesday night, fittingly in the Castro, a neighborhood where gay activist Harvey Milk made history three decades ago.
As the creators and stars of the film and local politicians walked the red carpet in front of the Castro Theatre, hundreds of people across the street chanted and waved “Vote No on Prop. 8″ signs. It was a moment that the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk would have appreciated.
GLAAD President Neil Giuliano and Director of Entertainment Media Damon Romine were among the guests at the sold-out, one-night-only, world-premiere screening, a benefit for four LGBT youth organizations. Cast members Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna brought star power to the Castro.
Before the screening began, the Castro Theatre’s resident house organist entertained the audience, followed by opening remarks by Focus Features CEO James Schamus who proudly announced the event raised $200,000, and thanked the 5,000 locals who participated in the film’s crowd scenes, one of which was a re-creation of a chilling candlelight march originally attended by 30,000 in 1978.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told the audience: “I am proud to live in a city that doesn’t just tolerate diversity, but celebrates diversity.” Regarding Milk, Newsom called him “an extraordinary person who lived an extraordinary but short life. So much has changed but the struggle remains.”
Newsom introduced director Gus Van Sant who jokingly warned the audience, “If it isn’t any good, it could be a long evening.” But the director had nothing to worry about because Milk is that good and moved most, if not all, of the audience to tears.
It has taken 30 years to bring to the screen the story of Milk’s rise to office and his and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination at City Hall by fellow Supervisor Dan White in 1978. Van Sant himself has been talking about making this film for 18 years: “He’s an American hero. He’s a great example of a man representing his community and his city,” he said last night.
What young writer Dustin Lance Black and director Van Sant have remarkably done is tell a story that unabashedly celebrates the man, the era and the greater LGBT movement. This is a film that has the power to inform new generations of the long hard fought battles the LGBT community has faced. This is a film that serves as a rallying cry for LGBT people to not accept second-class status. And, most importantly, this is a film that inspires hope.
In Milk’s first and only year in office, he helped defeat 1978’s discriminatory Prop. 6, a state measure that would have fired all California school employees suspected of being gay and those who supported them. Milk led people out of the closet and encouraged people to tell their personal stories to convince others to vote no on Prop. 6. Watched today, in the wake of the discriminatory Prop. 8 ballot measure, the film clearly displays the eerie parallels and similar anti-gay arguments made in support of the two propositions — yet Black and Van Sant’s movie was filmed months before Prop. 8 was ever put on the ballot.
Following the film’s premiere last night, guests were transported to San Francisco’s City Hall, itself a major character in the movie. A grand celebration of the film and Milk’s life took place, where cast members and LGBT activists old and new mingled against the backdrop of ’70s era disco music. Praise for the movie seemed universal, and as guests discussed the film and shared stories of both Prop. 6 then and Prop. 8 now, one point was oft repeated: If this movie could just come out before the election, it’s possible that Milk’s leadership then may inspire people now to take action. But, sadly, the movie will be released Thanksgiving weekend, weeks after Prop. 8 has been decided.
Activist Cleve Jones, played in the film by Emile Hirsch, said Milk would have been thrilled at the film but angry that the fight over equality continues. “Harvey would be angry,” Jones said about the battle against Prop. 8, “and he’d still be fighting.”
A bust of Milk was unveiled at City Hall in recent weeks. It sits at the top of the rotunda’s grand staircase, just yards away from where Milk was gunned down. During the party, people gathered around the bust and took a moment to read the inscription, a quote from a speech Milk made in 1978:
I ask for the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give ‘em hope.
And even though the timing could be better, that’s just what Milk offers: Hope.