Though Thanksgiving will mark the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination, his struggle is alive today.
Given that two of the most significant moments in the gay rights movement — the legalization of same-sex marriage in Connecticut and the passage of California’s Proposition 8 — happened this month, the release of a film about Milk, California’s first openly gay elected politician, is timely.
On Wednesday night, students spilled out of the Whitney Humanities Center anxiously awaiting a sneak preview of Gus van Sant’s “Milk,” titled after its subject, which was presented by LGBT Studies, the Film Studies Program and the film’s producer, Bruce Cohen ’83.
The film depicts Milk, played by Sean Penn, who led San Francisco’s gay community in a triumphant battle against Proposition 6, a measure that had aimed to rid public school systems of homosexuals across the country.
Considering the recent controversy surrounding California’s Proposition 8, Ron Gregg, one of the screening’s organizers and a senior lecturer in Film Studies, said the release of the film would resonate with students during such a politically charged time. He described a palpable energy at Yale.
“I’ve never felt the buzz around a film on campus like this,” Gregg said.
And, the buzz certainly became apparent at the packed screening on Wednesday, as students arrived as long as an hour early to snag seats. The film’s conclusion was met with a loud applause that lasted through the credits.
One student in the audience, Anders Pauley ’10, said he found Milk’s story inspiring and full of hope that new leaders will be able to address the gay rights issues America still faces today.
“I think the film reminds us of the need for brave leaders with fresh perspectives,” he said. “Otherwise, the struggle for gay rights and many other such struggles would just wither away.”
The screening concluded with a question and answer session with Cohen, who talked at length about the film’s current political implications. For Cohen, the parallel between Milk’s struggle for gay and lesbian’s civil rights and Proposition 8 is an especially important issue.
Last June, in a very public affair, Cohen was the first gay man to be married in the state of California. He was also the Los Angeles finance chair for “NO on 8 – Equality California,” a campaign opposing the measure on California’s ballot to overturn the legalization of same-sex marriage.
The recent vote in favor of the proposition, Cohen said, stirred very mixed emotions when watching the film at its premiere last week.
“If I saw the movie right after the verdict on Proposition 8 came in, it would have been imbued with sadness,” he said. “But, I viewed it eight days later and by that time people were already out on the street protesting in the way that Milk called for.”
In the film, Milk calls for a “national gay force” willing to fight back, which is what Cohen said he hopes will continue in the future.
Though Milk’s assassination in 1978 caused a huge stir at the time, Cohen noted that his story is not in the public consciousness, especially among people under the age of 30. But Cohen, who proposed screening the film at Yale, said he believes that “Milk” has Yale written all over it because of its politically charged atmosphere and LGBT activism.
“Harvey’s message is an inspiring one,” he said. “His politics resonate with so many groups of people and it shows how one person who wants to change the world can just do it.”
“Milk” opens in limited theaters on Wednesday.