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Harvey Milk: Action figure 

Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black pays tribute to unsung American hero and activist Harvey Milk.

“He was celebrated by his city, not just his people,” says Dustin Lance Black of Harvey Milk. The groundbreaking gay activist rose to prominence in the 1970s until he was murdered by a fellow San Francisco city supervisor. Black is the screenwriter of Milk, the new biopic directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn as the titular protagonist. He is polite but weary over the phone from a hospital in Virginia, where his mother is recovering from emergency surgery.

“What else am I gonna do?” Black says of his decision to continue this round of press, coming late in his two straight months of interviews. “Eat bad hospital food?”

He grew up gay and Mormon in Texas (a bad combination), landing in the Bay Area as a closeted teenager, where he first heard about Milk from colleagues in the theatre scene. Black was astonished to discover an out man who succeeded in a public forum despite his homosexuality, in a time when that was impossible for most. “It does that thing that Harvey always talked about---it gives you that hope,” he says. “And a chance you might get to date. Growing up in Texas, they don’t exactly throw you a parade when you come out. Or at least they didn’t in the ’80s.”

Milk’s story has been bumping around Hollywood for decades. Though 1984’s The Times of Harvey Milk won an Oscar for Best Documentary, a narrative feature has been harder to pull off---Van Sant himself had two films fall apart before this one came together. At 34, Black would’ve been just four years old when Milk was killed, and his single major credit is as a staff writer on the polygamy series Big Love. (“I more times than not found myself defending the Mormon church, which is a weird position for me,” says Black, who left the organization years ago.) “I waited patiently for other people to do it and that didn’t happen,” he says, and so four years ago he began scripting Milk. “I come from the TV world, not the feature world, so I didn’t really have contacts in that world. I didn’t have a studio or a financier---this was a spec script. It was sponsored by Visa. My Visa. Capital One Visa.”

Instead of the other writers’ approach---the motivations and law-and-order details of Milk’s murderer, Dan White (Josh Brolin)---Black chose to focus on Milk’s personal life and his key relationships, with Scott Smith (James Franco) and Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch). Milk met Smith in New York, where he was still living a closeted life. They moved west, where they discovered that even in boho, San Fran gays still faced open hostility and oppression. Milk was inspired to become a reformer and an activist at 40, running for city elections and losing multiple times until his third try in 1977. He was murdered in his office by White less than a year after taking office. (White, who also murdered mayor George Moscone over a job dispute, eventually committed suicide.)

The film opens with Milk dictating his life onto tape for safekeeping in the event of his assassination. It’s a device that pops up throughout the film---Black used transcripts from the real tape---existing as a useful expository element, a typical trope of the genre.

“I didn’t stray away from the conventional biopic,” says Black. “I’m doing this in a way that’s paying tribute to a gay man---that’s already unconventional enough. That’s why it was important to have it called Milk. Those great men of America---Lincoln, Kennedy, Boone---we all know who they are by their last names. To have a full-screen title card that says Milk, to put him up there with those other great heroes of America, that was always there.”

Milk arrives on a wave of buzz propelled by Penn’s performance as well as the more coincidental passing of Proposition 8 in California on November 4, which overturned the legal right of gays to marry. “The really great new thing coming out of November 4 was what happened on November 5. Gay and lesbian people stood up and started to march,” says Black. “Harvey’s message was self-representation: Introduce yourself, don’t hide behind political language, be direct. I’m very happy and Harvey is probably grinning ear to ear. I do think this moment has reactivated activism in the community.”

Milk opens Friday. See Movie Times, page 44, for theatres and schedules.

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