I cried so much as I watched Milk that it surprised me. When Harvey Milk was shot, I was still in high school in Littleton, Colorado, well known as bastion of enlightment. (I wouldn't want to dismiss or underappreciate the many kind, good, generous people who surrounded me there, but it was not a time or place in which coming out could be taken for granted, taken lightly.) I don't remember hearing of the shootings, but I remember, later, the Twinkie defense, and the very light sentence for Dan White. I was the age of the boy calling Harvey from Minnesota, and part of the story of that time in my own life involved treating myself less than tenderly. I've said it before, but it really was the gifts of activism, of trying to make changes in the way the world worked, of trying, at least, to let myself honestly see it, that opened me up to more sustainable levels of joy. That, and the relationships that came with it. And study. And reading. And starting to make art.
I just finished reading Toni Morrison's new novel, A Mercy, which is unbelievably beautiful. I'm going to write more about it in another post. Reading it reminded me of how I sat in the basement of the library at the University of Colorado at Bouder, in terrible fluorescent light, consuming Toni Morrison's novels voraciously -- Sula, Song of Solomon -- drunk on language and wrestling with meaning. Those books busted something open in me.
I thought Sean Penn was brilliant in Milk. I loved that there was an unmistakable sense of movement, that there was a sense of intimate, messy love within all the strategizing, stupid mistakes and playing with fire. In my experience, people with single-minded genius (it's a word I'll use, but it always involves an alchemy of the work and influences of many people, sometimes many communities) are often pretty difficult friends. (ETA: I just watched a video interview with Cleve Jones on his website, and he pointedly says that Harvey Milk was not a genius, not a saint, but "an ordinary faggot," so I'm adding this correction to go with that. The point being, of course, that ordinary people acting out of a larger sense of purpose can and do accomplish stunning things.) I'd guess that Harvey Milk was no different. Oh, but the willingness to fight, and the waves of people in the street -- it's a strong story, and the movie catches the opera in it.
"How do you like my new theater?" Harvey asks the young organizer Cleve Jones as they're climbing the showy steps under the dome of the state house, and Cleve, who I swear found his glasses on my nightstand in 1977, says something like, "A little over the top." Life can be like that; politics, too. I loved this movie, which finds meaning in loss without faking it (which is not to say that there 's not someone on the back of a motorbike speeding to calm the violent action he helped to start).