“When people stand up, things change.“
In six words, Sean Penn managed to sum up the entire movie of Milk. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still see it.
Released in theaters Friday, Milk is a biographical film from director Gus Van Sant about Harvey Milk, the United States‘ first openly gay elected official. The film spans eight years in the life of Milk, played by Penn, from the mere conception of his first campaign for San Francisco city supervisor to his assassination at the hands of colleague Dan White.
A panel of actors and filmmakers from Milk sat down with reporters in San Francisco on Oct. 29 to talk about its upcoming release. While they made it clear that the film was enjoyable to make, all were aware that the film they made had a gravitas that existed beyond its run time.
“I don’t think most students know who Harvey Milk is,” said Emile Hirsch, who plays Cleve Jones, one of the youngest activists in Milk’s campaign. “For me, what the film really was about was human rights and equality and democracy – just some of the core principles that I think America’s about and America stands for. And I think it’s important for college students to learn those things.“
Penn stressed that understanding who Milk was as a person in addition to his role as a political figure is a large step toward understanding why his message continues to be meaningful.
“What struck me really was that Harvey Milk, whether he had been in politics or not, he would have been a political figure simply because he had been one of these people who had come up against the obvious obstacles in life,” Penn said. “And he greeted it with such courage and warmth and was politically kind. He was a kind spirit, and that was going to be strong whatever he did.“
The actors and filmmakers said they hoped the film would create a community of respect.
“You’re watching a lot of good-hearted human beings – where and how they decide to fuck is irrelevant,” Penn said. “And so I think that alone can be strong, to get in there and feel more familiar, less stigmatized and confused by it, less afraid of it … The more the pure heart of people is in the face of [intolerance], the less breathing room there is for that kind of thinking.“
Though the film muses on a subject that took place around 30 years ago, the dearth of young people in local politics is a topic applicable to today’s political sphere. The connections to today’s struggle for gay rights will obviously reignite deeply rooted positions, but moreover, the film delves into the importance for activism and public participation on local, state and national levels.
Despite the high voter turnout for the presidential election, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black expressed his frustration at the current climate of political activism outside the realm of elected officials.
“The folks who I know who are even political and supposedly activists are so passive,” Black said. “Actually getting up and doing something about it, organizing physically and making some sort of change, it just doesn’t seem to happen so much.“
Being apathetic to politics is acceptable and normal, said sophomore international relations major and ASUCD Senator Jack Zwald.
“We can wean people off of that apathy [and] really start working for that change. … But we’re going to fall short if we only go this far.“
When asked what it will take to get more students involved in politics on all levels of government, Zwald’s answer was decisive.
“It’ll take major crisis,” he said. “It’ll take something that really reaches down in to the core of every student … that pulls them out and compels them to get involved.“
LAURA KROEGER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.