Sunday, July 12, 2009

Some Thoughts on Milk

A while back, I wrote about my dislike of the standard Hollywood biopic here. My biggest issue is that I don't trust them to be straight with me, and facts that may complicate the audience's perception of their protagonists are often airbrushed out for commercial reasons. With that in mind, I watched Milk last night, a film about noted gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was gunned down in 1978 by a fellow official. It wasn't brilliant, but it wasn't bad either; however, there are two facts the filmmakers decided not to share with us which I'd like to jot down here (again, mainly culled from Wikipedia). I wish to point out that I'm not seeking to denigrate Milk's achievement in any way; he spoke out as an openly gay man at a time when, to utilise that old chestnut, it was neither profitable nor popular, and put his life at risk by doing so. However, there is a real danger, especially if the person died tragically, of elevating such individuals into iconic martyrs, a status which often ignores the fact that they were only human beings, with the same flaws and blind spots as anyone else. In Milk's case, the fact that he stood up for an oppressed minority meant that at times he was willing to overlook certain ethical considerations (the end justifying the means, in other words), and to include the facts below would have given us a more flawed, but also more real and accurate, portrayal of the man.
1) On September 22nd, 1975, an ex-Marine called Oliver "Billy" Sipple prevented the assassination of President Gerald Ford by a woman called Sara Jane Moore, who pointed a gun at Ford as he left the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco and was about to fire when Sipple deflected the shot. Sipple was gay, and had been at one stage the lover of a man who attempted suicide after Sipple left him; the same man had previously been involved with Harvey Milk. Milk decided that it would be good publicity to out Sipple as a gay man to the media after his heroic act, regardless of the fact that many people, including Sipple's parents, didn't actually know that he was gay. Although Sipple apparently held no grudge against Milk for this, the excessive media attention caused him an awful lot of problems and led to an estrangement with his mother, a Baptist. Many people have strongly criticised this action by Milk, stating (rightly, I believe) that the decision to expose someone as gay is one that should never be taken except by the person themselves or with their explicit consent, rather than, as in this case, to drum up positive publicity for the movement. (Facts taken from an article on Sipple here.)
2) Another aspect of Milk's life which the film ignores is the political connections that both he and Mayor George Moscone, who was murdered by the same guy who shot Milk, had with the notorious Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple (sic). From Wikipedia (click here for the unedited article):

Harvey Milk, who later became a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, first became acquainted with the Temple while running for a seat in the California State Assembly against Art Agnos. Jim Jones initially telephoned a Milk campaign worker and stated that he wished to back Milk, apologized for earlier backing Agnos and said he would "make up for it" by sending volunteers to work on Milk's campaign. When told by friend Michael Wong of Jones' earlier backing of Agnos, Milk retorted "Well, f**k him. I'll take his workers, but that's the game Jim Jones plays." Temple member Sharon Amos organized the Temple's leafleting campaign for Milk. Amos requested the delivery of 30,000 pamphlets and Milk's campaign delivered them to the Temple ...
While the Temple aided some local politicians, it did not do so entirely without suspicion. For example, Harvey Milk felt that Temple members were odd and dangerous. When a Milk aide became wary of the Temple's large and imposing security force following a delivery of election pamphlets, Milk cautioned the aide "Make sure you're always nice to the Peoples Temple. If they ask you to do something, do it, and then send them a note thanking them for asking you to do it. They're weird and they're dangerous, and you never want to be on their bad side." Jim Rivaldo, a political consultant and associate of Milk's said that, after later meetings at the Temple, he and Milk agreed that "there was something creepy about it." ...
Similarly, Milk was enthusiastically received at the Temple several times during his visits, and he always sent glowing thank-you notes to Jones after visits. Milk ally Richard Boyle recalls "[b]oth Milk and I spoke at the temple to the cheers of thousands of Jones' followers and won their support." Following one visit, Milk wrote to Jones: "Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave." In a hand-written note, Milk wrote to Jones "my name is cut into stone in support of you - and your people." Jim Rivaldo, who attended Temple meetings with Milk , explained that, until Jonestown, the church "was a community of people who appeared to be looking out for each other, improving their lives." Boyle explained that it was vital for both his campaign and Milk's that they be received well at the Temple "because Jones was not only Moscone's appointed head of the Housing Authority but also could turn out an army of volunteers." ...
While most influential allies broke ties with the Temple following Jones' departure after increasing media scrutiny, some did not. For example, Willie Brown stated that the attacks were "a measure of the church’s effectiveness." San Francisco columnist Herb Caen wrote "Hot story, but where's the smoking gun?", concluding, "so far lots of smoke but no gun." The Sun Reporter also defended the Temple. On July 31, 1977, just after Jones had fled to Guyana, the Temple conducted a rally against political opponents attended by Willie Brown, Harvey Milk and Art Agnos, among others...
Harvey Milk remained popular among temple members. Two months before the tragedy [in Guyana] Temple members sent over fifty letters of sympathy to Milk following the death of Milk's lover, Jack Lira. The letters were formulaic and one typical letter ended, "You have our deepest sympathy in your loss and we would be glad to have you with us [in Jonestown], even for only a short visit." ...
[O]n Sunday February 19, 1978, Harvey Milk wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter supporting Jones and making statements about Timothy and Grace Stoen. Milk wrote "Rev. Jones is widely known in the minority communities and elsewhere as a man of the highest character." Regarding the Stoens, Milk wrote "Timothy and Grace Stoen, the parties attempting to damage Rev. Jones reputation". Milk also wrote "[i]t is outrageous that Timothy Stoen could even think of flaunting this situation in front of Congressman with apparent bold-faced lies." The letter ended with "Mr. President, the actions of Mr Stoen need to be brought to a halt. It is offensive to most in the San Francisco community and all those who know Rev. Jones to see this kind of outrage taking place." ...
Milk spoke at a service at the Temple for the last time in October 1978 ...
[And finally:] On the evening of November 18, 1978 in Jonestown, Jones ordered his congregation to drink potassium-cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. In all, at Jonestown, a nearby airstrip and Georgetown, 918 people died, including over 270 children, resulting in the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the incidents of September 11, 2001. Congressman Leo Ryan was among those killed at the airstrip.

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