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Monterey screenwriter's journey to Milk

dustinDustin Lance Black's ties to the Central Coast helped craft the powerful civil rights tale

Politics, love and loss are perfect bedfellows in Milk, one of the most powerful, thought-provoking films of the year. But the much-ballyhooed movie about San Francisco politico Harvey Milk and the birth of the gay civil rights movement is a stunning, sometimes haunting portrait of a rarely scene pocket of history and how hope, ultimately, becomes the only saving grace.

And all this written by a man who wasn’t even born during Milk’s political renaissance. That man is Dustin Lance Black, 29, who lived in the Monterey Bay area for a time in the 1990s.

Black’s moving screenplay may land him an Oscar nom, but the rest of the ensemble shines in this winning tale of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected into office on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s. For starters, Sean Penn commands the screen in the lead role. Toss in James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Allison Pill, Diego Luna and a steely Josh Brolin as beleaguered Board of Supervisor Dan White and you have the makings of a masterpiece. After a series of behind-the-scenes political brouhahas, White  shot and killed Milk, along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone, in November 1978.

The film, directed by Gus Vant Sant (Goodwill Hunting, Finding Forrester) is playing at the Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz.

But back to the big question: How did a twentysomething, who was raised Mormon, manage to effectively capture Milk’s journey through the city’s political system? One word: Patience.

“My stepfather was stationed in Fort Ord [in the ’90s] and it wasn’t a great place for a closet case to hang out,” Black says of himself. “I would come up to San Francisco and I started hearing this story from a theater director I was apprenticing under … the story of Harvey Milk. I was very surprised that I had never heard the story of an out gay man, much less one that had been celebrated by his city. I held onto that and tracked the progress of his story, and I saw it falling off—and his message falling off—and I thought it was time to do something to get it back out there.”

Black’s extensive research on Milk included absorbing the powerful 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which nabbed an Academy Award for Best Documentary. It stoked the young screenwriter’s desire to create his own story.

But timing and fate came into play. Behind the scenes, über producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago) had been sweating out their own Milk project based on a book by Randy Shilts (The Mayor of Castro Street) to no avail. Meanwhile, Black evolved creatively, eventually landed in Hollywood and, after working on numerous projects, worked his way into the writing mix of the HBO polygamy hit Big Love.  (Curiously, he was the only Mormon writer on the show’s staff.) But it didn’t stop the young screenwriter’s quest to bring Milk to life cinematically. He was so passionate about it, in fact, he’d often go back to his script-in-progress after working all day on Big Love.

But there was still resistance. Hollywood insiders kept telling Black he should drop the project because it was “too risky.” Still, he ventured forth, interviewing many real-life figures who knew Milk during the ’70s. Naturally, his endeavors led him Cleve Jones.

Suddenly, the clouds parted.

Jones was an activist with Milk and one of his closest confidants. He led many marches and rallies. After Milk’s death, he founded the Names Project and designed and created the AIDS Quilt.

“I was impressed with [Black] because he’s genuine, kind and smart—and because he ‘knew’ who Harvey Milk was,” Jones notes.

Fortunately, Jones knew Van Sant. He didn’t mention that to Black initially but, intrigued with his vision, encouraged him to keep working. Several years later, and after many script re-writes, Jones introduced Black to Van Sant.

The pairing sent out a powerful ripple effect that can be seen today in the actors’ memorable portrayals.

“What struck me about Harvey was that he came across the obvious obstacles in life and greeted it with such courage and warmth, and he was politically kind; he was a kind spirit,” Penn says. “I tried to greet [the role] with the writer wrote and with the flow of my increasing affection for Harvey Milk the more I got to know him.”

Penn loses himself in the role, showing all sides of the man—passionate politician, devoted friend, soulful lover. (Watch for an Oscar nom.) And Franco, who plays Milk’s lover, Scott Smith, manages to turn in one of the best performances of his career. Asked whether he had any reservations taking on a “gay” role, the actor said, “absolutely not.”

“One of the things I liked in the film is the way Harvey and Scott’s relationship is presented,” Franco adds. “There’s no drama. It’s just presented like any heterosexual relationship would be presented in a mainstream movie. You don’t see a lot of movies where a gay relationship is presented like that.”

The same can be said for the gay civil rights movement, in general. Few films have captured its finer nuances. In Milk, Black focuses in on the eight-year journey (1970-78) when Milk rallied for gay rights, targeting the unruly relationship between the police and gays, particularly in the Castro. Eventually, through archival footage, the story shows Anita Bryant’s infamous campaign to revoke the rights of gays in Dade County, Florida, which spawned 1977’s Proposition 6 (the Briggs Initiative) in California—it sought to terminate gay teachers and those associated with them. This only seemed to fuel Milk’s civil rights machine. Having successfully landed on the board of supervisors in late 1977, he set out to bring Bryant’s fight “home.”

Ironically, the movie illuminates the eerie similarities between Prop 6 and Prop 8 (banning same-sex marriage), which was passed in California last month and was met with mass protests nationwide.

“I did not know specifically that there was going to be a Prop 8,” Black says of writing the script, “but I don’t think this fight is over. There will be more propositions and each time there is, it gives us an opportunity to continue that education campaign; an opportunity to get out there and say, ‘Hey, this is who we are,” and to break down the myths that Harvey talked about so much.”

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