Santa Cruz Good Times

Friday
Jan 30th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

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.”

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Throwing It All Away

Everybody’s for recycling, right? So why are we all doing it wrong? Our reporter gets down and dirty to uncover 10 secrets that will finally make the recycling process make sense

 

Aquarius Calling, Humanity Rising

Aquarius (11th sign after Aries) is the sign of service—serving one another, building community. Aquarius is fixed air, stabilizing new ideas in the world. When new ideas reach the masses the ideas become ideals within the hearts and minds of humanity. Air signs (Gemini, Libra and Aquarius) are mental. They think, ponder, study, research, gather and distribute information. For air signs, education and learning, communicating, writing, being social, tending to money, participating in groups and creating sustainable communities are most important. One of the present messages Aquarius is putting forth to the New Group of World Servers is the creation of the New Education (thus thinking) for humanity—one based not on commodities (banking/corporate values) but on virtues. Humanity and Aquarius Aquarius is the sign of humanity itself. We are now at the beginnings of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Humanity (rising). The “rising” is the Aquarian vision of equality, unity, the distribution and sharing of all resources and of individual (Leo) creative gifts for the purpose of humanity’s (Aquarius) uplifting. This is the message in the Solar Festival of Aquarius (at the full moon) on Tuesday, Feb. 3. We join in these visions by reciting the World Prayer of Direction, the Great Invocation.Tuesday’s solar festival follows Monday’s Groundhog Day, or Imbolc (ancient Celtic fire festival) the halfway mark between winter solstice and spring Equinox). The New Group of World Servers (NGWS) during these two days are preparing for the upcoming Three Spring Solar Festivals: 1. Aries Resurrection/Easter Festival (April); 2. Taurus Buddha/Wesak Festival (May); and 3. Gemini’s Festival of Humanity (June). Aquarius and the new and full moons together are the primary astrological influences behind all of humanity’s endeavors. The NGWS are to teach these things, calling and uplifting humanity. Join us everyone. (301)

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Job Insecurity

Woman fights for her job in thoughtful, life-sized ‘Two Days One Night’
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Jeffrey’s Restaurant

Why quick and friendly service matters at a local diner.

 

If you didn't live in Santa Cruz, where would you be living?

I would live in Kauai because the water is warmer, and I just love it there. Maureen Niehaus, Santa Cruz, Dental Assistant

 

Clos LaChance Wines

Pinot Noir 2012

 

Striking Gold

A taste of Soquel Vineyards’ five gold medal-winning Pinots