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0:41:32 Harvey vows war against Anita Bryant

Rabble Rousing

By Elizabeth Erwin

[1] Encapsulating the message of hope which permeates the film, the scene in which Harvey Milk addresses a mob assembled in the aftermath of the passage of anti-gay legislation is key in understanding both the cinematic and the political objectives of Milk. The scene contextualizes the reasons for the anger that fueled the gay community to riot and employs film techniques designed to support a particular reading of the historic event. Unlike the landmark call to arms speech from the Gay Freedom Day Parade in which Milk speaks out publicly against Proposition 6 for the first time, this moment is designed to showcase that the gay rights movement has moved away from rhetoric to action.

[2] The scene opens with Milk, Cleve Jones, and a friend watching a television news broadcast in which Anita Bryant is speaking about the need to protect the American people, particularly the children, from the immoral, gay minority. Much to the dismay and anger of the men watching, she advocates the passage of legislation repealing gay protection ordinances. In terms of historical accuracy, this scene rings true. Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaign is cited as a major factor in unifying the gay community and for making the word “gay” something talked about in households across America (Southern Poverty Law Center). By using an actual historical figure and not an anti-gay compilation figure, this scene establishes clearly the heroes and villains of the text.

[3] The film uses archival film footage of the real Bryant, a decision that adds gravitas to the film. Interestingly, the slightly static film footage also allows the film to suggest subtly that Bryant’s ideas are antiquated. This suggestion is further enhanced by the fact that her comments to reporters are shown through a small television set while the reaction of Milk and the others takes up the full frame, thereby signifying that it is their reaction with which the audience is supposed to identify. This moment also sets up nicely the rhetoric the gay community was dealing with from oppositional forces and sets up an effective contrast for the speech Milk will give on the steps of the state house.

[4] The next images the audience sees are that of mass chaos while an audio track explains that yet another gay protection ordinance has been passed. Milk is watching the riot escalate from his window when he receives a phone call from a troubled gay teen who is in jeopardy of being sent away from his home for “gay deprogramming.” When Milk tells the boy to run, the scene cuts to show the teen is in a wheelchair. Because this is the image viewers see almost directly prior to Milk’s speech, it is the image most reflected by Milk’s words. When he talks about the gay youth depending on the older gay population to take action, this is the boy the audience visualizes.

[5] As with the Bryant footage, here too the scene is shot so as to build audience identification with Milk. We see the riot taking form from Milk’s vantage point as the camera cuts to him watching the scene unfolding from his upstairs window. By seeing what Milk sees, the audience is given entree into his worldview. Similarly, Milk’s conversation with the suicidal teen works because the teen is clearly delineated to be a representational figure. Unlike Milk, who is shot in closeup, the teen is shot in richer sepia tones and from far away. The camera work is effective because it makes the interaction less about a specific gay teen in need and more about showing the dire predicaments of gay and lesbian teens in homes across America.

[6] From an historical perspective, it is hard to take issue with this moment in the film. Not only did the phone call transpire but the environment for gay and lesbian teens in the late 1970s was dangerous on several fronts (Harris 7-9). Funded by conservative churches and organizations, a number of “pray the gay away” organizations were emerging, and so the fears expressed by the teen in the phone call ring true. Interestingly, though, Milk actually did receive a phone call from a wheelchair-bound teen in jeopardy, but it was from a lesbian and not a gay man (Balfour). The decision to change the voice from female to male is a curious one given the film’s attempt to recreate that moment with as much historical accuracy as possible.

[7] Disconnected from the teen prematurely, Milk has little time to mull the implications of his conversation as he is pulled downstairs by Jones to help calm the growing riot. The film shows scenes of gay men in bars filing out into the streets as voices yelling “Anita Bryant is coming for you!” waft in the background. A strong police presence is noted as is their ominous threat to Milk that if he can’t control the mob, then they’ll handle it. With megaphone in hand, Milk pleads with the police to get him a permit to march, to which they agree. The depiction of the riot itself is interesting in that there is a lot of yelling and chanting but no outward displays of violence. The decision to hint at violence as opposed to actually showing it is a calculated move on the part of the director because it allows for easier audience identification with the protesters. Similarly, the scenes of the riot are shot so that the focus remains firmly on Milk to the point that the riots become the background and not the main event. Ominous music underlays the scenes and works to trigger a sense of foreboding in the audience that is helpful in ensuring that their focus stays on Milk and not the surrounding chaos.

[8] Reports of the actual riot indicate that there was a fair amount of bloodshed, both by the protesters and the police (Shilts 218-19). Certainly, police brutality is overtly mentioned earlier in the film when archival news footage is used to highlight the dangerous world in which gays and lesbians lived in the late 1970s. But here similar archival footage is eschewed for a more sanitized depiction of the violence. Because this film is advocating equality for the victimized population, it makes sense on a narrative level not to show that victimized population engaging in morally ambiguous actions. However, this depiction of the riot is not born out by the actual history. In real life, angry protesters broke show windows and hurled rocks at the police.

[9] Having led the protesters up and down the streets of the Castro, Milk climbs the steps of City Hall and uses his megaphone to address the crowds. Beginning with his trademark intro, “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you,” Milk expresses anger and frustration with the gay ordinance repeals sweeping the country and uses rhetoric that acknowledges and legitimizes the anger of the gay community. As he does so, White, alone, watches Milk’s speech on his home television. In the background, swelling music begins to play indicating that this moment is one of transformation and celebration, for the gay community will no longer be silent. Instead, they’ll fight back. The speech given by Milk in the film is taken word for word from Milk’s actual speech. Great detail has been paid to preserving the integrity of that moment down to a replica of the clothes worn by the real Milk. And while there is no way of knowing if White watched the actual speech, this scene on the whole receives high marks for its historical accuracy (The Life and Times of Harvey Milk).

[10] The moment of White watching Harvey on his television is extremely effective from a cinematic standpoint because it mirrors the scene previously of Harvey and his friends watching Bryant on television. The voice of the dominant culture, given access to American homes by television, has switched from Bryant’s view and is now reflected by Milk’s call for equality. Similarly, that these scenes are both situated in the domestic home is not coincidental. Whereas Harvey is surrounded by his friends who are his equivalent of family, White is alone suggesting that his anti-gay views are so out of touch that he is alone in them.