My friend Pat is not a Bay Area native, but an enthusiastic transplant who has been here for several years setting down roots in the North Bay. In the spirit of localism, she was an extra in Milk, Gus Van Sant’s movie about the life of Harvey Milk. She recently attended one of the previews and I thought you might like to read her description of seeing the movie, so with her permission, I’m posting it for you:
Run, don’t walk, to see Milk.
As I considered “seeing” the movie, I couldn’t imagine being this close to San Francisco and not seeing it anywhere but in the Castro with the community he loved and inspired.
My little SUV loaded with lesbians headed for a preview screening of Milk in the castro on a clear winter night. How perfect.
As we walked down Divisidero towards Market , congratulating ourselves for getting there almost an hour early to get in line, from blocks away we saw them – hundreds of people filling the sidewalks and wrapping around the corner down the block – waiting patiently, but obviously full of anticipation for the film.
We noticed the line was all men… and I mean all men. I wondered where all the girls were. Eventually I found out the special preview was for Movie Bears – a group of Bears who go see movies together.
We smiled at the prospect of these Marin and Sonoma County wine country lesbians joining the Bears. They opened the doors and a happy crowd filed into the theater. Eventually there were 672 Movie Bears in the theater, and us – six lesbians – in the 2nd row of the balcony. As the organ player played, the crowd’s anticipation grew. Then, as Castro Theater tradition dictates, the organ disappeared below the stage and the crowd erupted in applause.
The movie opens with actual footage from the 70’s. I sat amazed and saddened as I watched men being arrested, footage shot in bars with almost everyone covering their faces… trying not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs or being rejected by their families.
It was clear what life was like pre-Harvey Milk for many in our community.
Sean Penn and his fellow actors, the director, the cameramen, the extras (I am proud to include myself in this group) portrayed a time of awakening with such intellect, compassion, emotion and compelling storytelling. It was clear the San Franciso bears knew many of the players in this story of community pride. As the script introduced the characters around Milk spontaneous hoots and applause greeted their appearances.
I felt like a new friend watching home movies with a great big San Francisco family.
As I saw the passion and pride that drove the activities of gays and lesbians in the Castro in the 70’s – watching the momentum grow to eventually include the election of the first openly gay official of a major city – I was reminded of qualities we often forget about our community: fierce and fearless pride and sense of self. These are emotions that come from years of discrimination; feelings that well up from deep inside until one day you say, “no more”; a pride that comes from introspection of self and community. And, for all of our differences and arguments about how we should proceed, there is unspoken agreement that proceed is what we must do. That is what unites us.
In the closing moments, the film chronicles and then re-enacts the candlelight march after Milk’s assasination. At first, it is clearly the re-enactment, and I thought “wow, that’s a lot of extras” and I wondered if that’s really what it looked like, but before my mind could finish the sentence they switched to actual footage. And, in fact, it did look different.
The film crew could never have amassed enough extras to show what really happened that night: 30,000 people walked. They walked not just for Harvey Milk, but for themselves and their vision of a better community, a better and equal world. It was November 1978.
I sat teary-eyed, watching the screen in the darkness of this magnificent theater, with the 672 Bears and 6 lesbians in the balcony and I thought of how in a few short years, Patient Zero would surface. And a few years after that, our community would be decimated by AIDS. All this energy, love and power…eaten away by a virus no one understood. I wondered, as I watched the unbridled pride and power of the 30,000 marchers, where would we be if AIDS hadn’t happened. There was such strength, power, will, and pride that was forming.
When the film ended, I saw something I’d never seen before: Row by row, as the credits rolled, everyone stood, looking at the screen. Then, in a spontaneous act of gratitude, the 672 Bears and 6 lesbians thanked all the people who made this film – as their credits rolled by – with a standing ovation until the last name
left the screen. Everyone clapped and applause filled the theater – not thunderous wild applause – but the firm, full applause of appreciation for a story well told.
It was surreal to leave the theater and walk out onto Castro Street and the neighborhood we’d just seen chronicled. One of the women pointed to the corner and said, “Harvey stood right there on his soapbox… right there”.
And thank God he did.