There are events you live through that you know will become part of history. And then there are everyday events and people whose lives suddenly come back at you, and you realize you lived through something special.
Yesterday Newell and I went to the downtown Stockton Cineplex and watched “Milk.” I knew the guy the way most news photogs know local politicians. He was the kind of person you could talk to, joke around with, pop a mike on. Very mellow, low key, friendly. He wanted and needed the news and he knew how to work the system as much as any of the others. Example: the pooper-scooper law. I saw that in the film and laughed – they caught the moment, just as it happened in real life.
Watching the film took me back decades to what may well have been the high point of my career – working at the public television station (KQED) in San Francisco from 1978 through 1980. Wow. Momentous years, momentous events…and working at a station that did news right. Not just covering events, but giving in-depth background and every day finding out what mattered to the community.
For a (fairly) young photog, this was life. KQED’s philosophy was that all journalists are equal – so as a FILMMAKER, I was treated as one of the team, not just a techie. Interviews were more conversations than a series of questions. “The Evening Edition” reached out to communities from high-brow (politics, opera, symphony) to ethnic (loved the story on the Black Panthers school) to S&M (if ya don’t know, don’t ask).
All of this was part of the fabric of late 70’s SF. My county supervisor was Dan White (and honestly, I can’t remember who I voted for). Randy Shilts, who I worked with frequently, was the first openly gay TV reporter in the country. Mayor George Moscone was one of the political-savy Moscone clan. Then-county supervisor Diane Feinstein, who tearfully made the stunning announcement of the shootings, I remember most for admitting in a giggly interview that she would have loved to be an actress.
And in watching the movie, they were all there in both archival film or portrayed in very believable acting. Sean Penn IS Milk. My god…he is Milk incarnate. It is uncanny.
Some side-tidbits. I consider Mary-Ann White and her children victims of events…her husband was a good man driven by devils to commit crimes he would never have considered had he been in his right mind. Not an evil man, but rather a man caught up in a lifestyle and circumstances he couldn’t comprehend and which he also resisted. Unable to change, he chose to end both his life and that of others. The film caught that. White was trying to survive financially…he had a franchise for a small fast food place on Pier 39. Supervisors were paid a pittance.
Milk though…was a man driven; a man unable to give up. And a most unlikely leader for the youth-obsessed gay movement. KQED was located in an industrial area near many of the gay bars. It wasn’t unusual to have guys in black leather and spikes sitting in chairs next to old socialites on pledge nights, taking phone calls and soliciting (no – not for that) for funds for public television. At one point in the movie, when the guys head out to The Stud for drinks, memories swirled as I remembered that the bar was located nearly across the street from KQED.
Enough of memory lane…my message today is that sometimes the most unlikely people and events become history. Yes, Milk was historic in that he was the first openly gay elected official in a major US city. But he never tried (or had time to try) to move beyond that…he was the Mayor of Castro Street and a committed local politician. This movie revealed more of his life and philosophy…making him bigger than he was in real life.