Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Milk (2008) >>

Print Resources

Aaron, Michele. New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004.
Picking up where The Celluloid Closet ended, this look at queer films post 1990 examines depictions of the LGBTQI identity in popular culture, specifically film. It positions big-budget fare against independent, experimental film in order to illustrate how some tropes have been remained while others continue to persist. This is an important work for understanding where queer film was at prior to the release of Milk. Researchers should note that this book was published before Milk or a slew of such other queer films as Brokeback Mountain were released. Still, it is a very helpful resource in understanding the evolving political climate that made those films possible.
Benshoff, Harry, and Sean Griffin, eds. Queer Cinema, The Film Reader. New York: Routledge Film Readers, 2004.
This book goes in-depth in explaining the historical and political climates in which queer films were released. This is an effective approach because the films are analyzed with an eye toward the bigger narrative of the gay rights movement and cultural representations in the media. Utilizing the classical gaze theory, films are situated within broad cinema as well as queer cinema. This book was released prior to Milk but will help scholars understand the evolution of queer cinema within the United States.
Black, Dustin Lance, and Gus Van Sant. Milk: The Shooting Script. New York: New Market Press, 2008.
Containing the actual shooting script for the film, this book sheds light on to both the man profiled in the biopic as well as the artistic decisions behind the film. It contains a detailed transcript of a conversation over post-production between Black, Van Sant, and Cleve Jones (the man upon whose memories of Milk the film is based). Other informative elements of use to scholars include scene notes from the writer in which he explains his choices in creating scenes and why certain elements of historical accuracy may have been cut. Also of use is the introduction that details why Milk's exact words in particular scenes were used and how that impacted the feel of the film.
Erens, Patricia. "The Times of Harvey Milk: An Interview with Robert Epstein." Cineaste 14.3 (1986): 26-27.
Before there was Milk, there was the academy award winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Director Robert Epstein explains in this revealing interview that his original intention for the film was to trace the political controversy of the Briggs Initiative, legislation that would prevent anyone suspected of being homosexual from working in a public school. However, the film evolved into an examination of Harvey Milk and gay politics in the wake of the Milk and Moscone assassinations. Epstein explains that he wanted to create a verite styled film and that he determined the three core ingredients to his film would be news footage, archival footage, and original interviews. As a film largely crowd-funded, the documentary ran into a substantial roadblock when Epstein could find no one willing to characterize Dan White as more than a one dimensional villain. As a result, the director chose to let Dan White speak for himself by relying upon White's media interviews. This article is of use to scholars both for its fascinating insights into how a controversial subject can be constructed on film and for its exploration of the ingredients needed to tell a story truthfully while still maintaining artistic integrity.
Erhart, Julia. "The Naked Community Organizer: Politics and Reflexivity in Gus Van Sant's Milk." A/B: Auto/Biography Studies 26.1 (2011): 156-70.
Erhart examines whether Milk's repeated assertion that it is not about him but about the gay rights movement undermines the film's ability to be a biopic. The tension between the film's stated goal of presenting a portrait of an extraordinary man and the rhetoric uttered by that man creates a transcendent film experience in which the audience can be simultaneously challenged by radical ideas and comforted by traditional film devices. It is also acknowledged that the biopic is not meant to be an historically accurate representation of history but an interpretive treatment with fictionalized elements. This article is of use to scholars both for its in-depth look at what elements comprise a biopic as well as for its discussion of how Milk fits within the genre.
Foss K. "Harvey Milk and the Queer Rhetorical Situation: A Rhetoric of Contradiction." Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2007. 74-92.
Foss argues that queer rhetoric is often channeled through the prism of the heterosexual experience. He points to the rhetorical strategy of making Harvey Milk an exception to that rule and explains how Milk used humor and inclusive language in order to connect with heterosexual voters. Milk believed in non-apologetic language and sought to establish the concept of homosexuality as palatable to middle America. This is an interesting look at Milk's language and will be of use to scholars interested in how Milk's language added to the public discourse on issues related to LGBTQI civil rights.
Hallas, Roger. "Queer AIDS Media and the Question of the Archive." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16.3 (2010): 433.
While not exclusive to the film Milk, this scholarly essay examines the depiction of queerness on film with a special emphasis on how AIDS bodies are viewed. Hallas notes that Milk is effective in creating a sense of mourning not only for the man gunned down too soon by an assassin's bullet but for an era of gay life. The article singles the film out as an example of how film can be used to normalize discourse on gay rights. Films such as Milk are also useful in shaping perception over modern issues, and the impact of the film on Proposition 8 is discussed. Researchers will find the discussion of queer visibility helpful in understanding how Milk fits into the canon of queer cinema.
Rapold, Nicolas. "Come With Us." Sight and Sound 19.2 (2009): 28-30.
As an article that spends significant space situating Milk within the Van Sant oeuvre, this article also details the characteristics that elevate the film away from conventional biopic territory into political commentary. Describing Milk as ultimately a "death trip movie," Rapold argues that there are parallels to be found in the film between the Harvey Milk/Dan White relationship and the Obama/McCain campaign. For instance, a parallel is made that just as Harvey was able to blossom in the political eye of the storm while McCain wilted, so too did that symbiotic relationship carry out between Milk and White. While these parallels may not be convincing to all readers, this article does take a unique position on the film. As such, it is of use to scholars both for its understanding of how the film functions within Van Sant's cannon, as well as for it explicit politicizing of the film.
Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Considered the original examination of queer identity in film, this book traces the evolution of the villainous gay trope to the hero trope. Included within this analysis is a consideration of how these tropes developed out of specific political climates. Researchers should note that this book was turned into an award winning documentary that hits the highlights of the book and also combines archival film footage that showcases the discussed representations. Released well before Milk, the book does not address the film specifically. However, it does give the interested scholar terminology by which to evaluate Milk within the canon of queer film.
Villa, Sara. "Milk (2008) and The Times Of Harvey Milk (1984): The Double Filmic Resurrection Of The Mayor Of Castro Street." Altre Modernità 4 (2010): 190-99.
In this comparison article, Villa explores the ways in which the films Milk and The Times of Harvey Milk intersect in order to resurrect the spirit and political voice of slain politician, Harvey Milk. As both films start with the news footage announcing the Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone assassinations, the initial theme given to audiences is that of death. The author notes that both films then utilize Harvey's own rhetoric as well as insights from friends to resurrect his importance in relation to the Gay Rights Movement. Another theme explored is how both films resist martyring Milk. By offering what Villa calls "the non-martyrological perspective," each film is able to explain how Milk functioned within the gay community and how his rhetoric served as a catalyst of acceptance to the establishment. This article is of significance to scholars because of its interesting commentary with regard to the joint narrative created by the two films. Both films end not with the violent riots that erupted in the wake of Dan White's verdict but with words of hope taken from the writings and speeches of Milk. As such, this article is useful in understanding the broader social appeal of both films.

See Also

Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me. New York: Touchstone, 2007.

Rollins, Peter C. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.

Toplin, Robert. History by Hollywood. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1996.

Tynan, Kenneth. The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan. New York: Bloomsbury, 2001.

Video/Audio Resources

Danny Elfman. MILK [soundtrack]. Decca Audio, 2008. CD.
As the musical score to the film, this CD is designed to reflect the emotional rhythms of the film. It is useful to researchers because it shows the power music has to shape scenes and manipulate the audience. By scoring the film to have emotional resonance for the viewer, audience reaction is manipulated and, as such, is worthy of examination by scholars. Line notes by Elfman explain his decisions for how the music of the film was composed and arranged.

Online Resources

Balfour, Brad. "Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant Pour Their Heart Out in Milk." Huffington Post 20 Feb. 2009.
In their only joint Q&A conference, Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant discuss the elements of Milk's life that appealed to them in such a way that they were each driven to make this film. The discussion as to why the filmmaker decided to undulate between archival footage and a fictional retelling of Milk's life sheds light on to how the film decided to depict Milk. Both men also explain the impact they hoped the film would have upon Proposition 8 and the LGBTQI community. Students will find this article of use for both its articulation of how film can be used to create a memory of a forgotten event and why it was important to Van Sant to cast as many gay actors as possible in supporting roles.
Benshoff, Harry M. "Milk and Gay Political History." Jump Cut: A Review Of Contemporary Media 51 (2009).
Benshoff positions Milk as a film intended to re-add the story of a self-defined gay man to a civil rights history that has forgotten him. It is compared to other fictionalized films, most readily Brokeback Mountain, and the author explains that the film's mixing of news footage with a fictionalized story creates a queer hybrid experience for the viewer. The decision to start the film with historical footage of gay men being victimized by the police in bar raids helps to position the film in the minds of heterosexual audiences who may be unaware of gay history. This article is an excellent starting point for scholars interested in how Milk depicts the gay rights movement and its place within queer cinema.
Carter, Anthony. "Dustin Lance Black 2009 Oscar Speech for MILK." Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 1 June 2010.
Considered one of the best moments of the 2009 Academy Awards, Dustin Lance Black accepts his screenwriting Oscar with a tribute to Harvey Milk and states his belief that equality for the queer community is within reach.
Hanson, Briony. "Gus Van Sant." The Guardian. 16 Jan. 2009.
Director Van Sant discusses his catalog of work in this interview at the BFI Southbank. Specifically, he speaks to how he selects projects and whether it was difficult for the writer-director to direct the film given that he didn't write the screenplay. This interview contains a number of interesting moments that help to frame Milk within the context of Van Sant's other works. For example, researchers should take note of the director's revelation that there is a need to fictionalize when making a film even if the intent is to stay loyal to the real life story. There is also an animated discussion on the need for the gay community to understand its own history so that children growing up realize that there were gay and lesbian forefather and foremothers.
Hillstrom, Kevin, updated by Rob Edelman. "Gus Van Sant."
Factual information and brief essay on the director.
Hiscock, John. "Gus Van Sant on the making of Milk." The Telegraph 2 Jan. 2009.
This interview with director Van Sant explains the hurdles he encountered making the film. Specifically, the director speaks about taking over for Oliver Stone and replacing Robin Williams with Sean Penn in the titular role. Other revelations of note included in the interview are that the screenplay was drawn almost entirely from the recollections of Cleve Jones and that Penn relied heavily upon video footage and archival materials in order to bring his portrait of Milk to life. Researchers will gain much from Van Sant's explanation of his process as well as from the revelation that the film was shot almost entirely on location in the Castro.
Laurier, Joanne. "Milk, Identity Politics, and Gus Van Sant's Art." World Socialist Web Site. 9 Dec. 2008.
Exploring identity politics and its depiction, this article questions whether Milk was actually part of the Democratic establishment and not a renegade voice for social justice. The author explores how Milk fits within the director's canon and posits that Van Sant's interest in adolescence, expressed in films such as Elephant and Jerry, caused him to focus the film as to appeal to the dominant culture. A number of interesting questions are raised including a debate over the historical context of the film as well as whether the identity politics advocated by Milk were indeed radical. Researchers will find the challenging nature of the author's arguments useful in considering the film's historical impact.
LenaGray. "Sean Penn on Charlie Rose." Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 9 Dec 2008.
In this interview, Penn discusses his method for playing Milk and why he felt drawn to tackle the project. Archival footage of Milk is shown and then Penn's interpretation of the scenes depicted are shown for comparison. The actor also explains how he hopes the film will inspire struggling LGBTQI teens to hang on and why marriage equality is important as a civil rights issue. Scholars will find this discussion useful in understanding an actor's perspective in channeling an historical figure.
Macaulay, Scott. "Gus Van Sant on Making Milk." Filmmaker Magazine 13 Nov. 2008.
In this detailed look the director explains his process as well as how he compromised historical accuracy for the better of the film. Because the film was developed using documentary footage as a starting point, Van Sant initially wanted to shoot his film in the style of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. However, he didn't want to film in black and white and soon found the style didn't match the story he was trying to tell. Researchers will find Van Sant's discussion of historical accuracy interesting. The director notes how much time and effort was spend shooting in real locations with as many authentic props as possible. Yet, key scenes dialed back Milk's real life reactions so that the film would have emotional consistency.
MILK Official Web Site. Focus Features, 08 Aug. 2008.
As the official site for the film, this website contains a wealth of materials ranging from script excerpts to publicity stills to video. The information that is presented is done so with an eye toward attracting the ticket-buying public and should not be thought of as a scholarly resource. It is useful to scholars because it provides in-depth information on the film ranging from a catalog of everyone who worked on the film to a listing of awards won by the film. There is also a small sampling of positive reviews earned by the film.
Revision3. "MILK Film Review." Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 Dec. 2008.
This film review looks at the characterization of Milk by Sean Penn and the directorial style of Gus Van Sant. The three hosts are each experts in film and draw upon their knowledge of cinematic conventions in order to assess the overall quality of Milk. As this review talks about Milk as a possible Academy Award contender, scholars will find the discussion of how a film generates award buzz useful.
Stein, Ruth. "The Making of Van Sant's Harvey Milk Biopic." SFGate 23 Nov. 2008.
This article details the events that led to the making of the film. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black discusses some of the obstacles he encountered, specifically being unable to draw from Shilts' renowned biography of Milk because it had already been optioned for another film. Instead, the screenwriter drew his portrait of Milk from interviews with Milk's closest allies, particularly Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg. This article is of use to researchers because it explains how the film came to be made as well as why certain decisions, such as not including Dan White's trial, were made.