Milk (2008) is an effective combination of original narrative coupled with factual detail that tracks the meteoric rise of America’s first openly gay elected politician, Harvey Milk. Inspired by the Rob Epstein documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Dustin Lance Black based his Academy Award-winning screenplay on personal interviews with Milk intimates Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg. As such, the script is colored by personal remembrances as well as historically verifiable moments. Black also drew heavily from Randy Shilts’ acclaimed biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1988). This is particularly evident in how the film is plotted as it follows the narrative sequence of Shilts’s book. It also bears noting that Milk’s actual speeches played a large part in the development of the script, and exact excerpts are evident throughout the film. The end result is a compelling film that is both original and historical.
Just as in the Epstein documentary, the film begins with the actual news footage of Diane Feinstein, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, revealing to the media that Milk and Mayor Moscone had been shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. The film then backtracks to years earlier when Milk meets and embarks on a relationship with Scott Smith. The two leave New York and ultimately move to the Castro. Interspersed with their story are news footage accounts showcasing the threats of violence against the gay community. The second part of the film tracks Milk’s ascension to elected official and his turbulent relationship with fellow supervisor White. Scenes depicting their early friendship, exemplified when Milk is invited to White’s son’s baptism, and their vitriolic debates, seen shortly before White’s resignation, are supported by newspaper accounts as well as by first-hand accounts supported by multiple witnesses. Conversely, Milk’s suggestion that White was a closeted homosexual are largely unsubstantiated save for the recollection of Cleve Jones.
As a testament to the social and political legacy of Milk, this film advocates decisively for its hero. Milk is portrayed as charismatic and loyal, with many of his less inspiring qualities ignored, while those who don’t support him fully are painted as homophobic. These portrayals, especially with regard to White, are contradicted in Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk (San Francisco: Vince Emery Productions, 2010). This well researched book argues that Milk’s murder was fueled not by homophobia, as argued by the film, but by a sense of betrayal in a man mentally and emotionally unstable.