Trust Me: “Milk” Won’t Win an Oscar


Nicole and I finally went on a kid-less date last night, and we chose Milk as the inaugural film of our new lives. In short: it’s amazing, fantastic, inspiring, heartbreaking, funny, amazingly acted, wonderfully written, daringly directed, etc., etc. But it’ll never win an Oscar.

It’s the kind of film that I wished Arlo was old enough to experience with us, because above all, the movie is an inspiring call to social action. You would never know that from the TV ads — though they’re wonderful — since they leave out what is probably the central part of the story, the fact that this is a biggish-budget Hollywood film about organizing.

Harvey Milk is a reluctant hero, a man drawn into his times and inspired to do something in face of currents that are hurting good, regular people. So he organizes: he gets up on his soapbox (literally, which is funny), bullhorn in hand, and recruits people to his cause. He becomes not a leader of a movement, a symbol of a cause. Not an individual fighting against the system. There’s a wonderful scene in the film in which Harvey gets his people to make phone calls for a big action, and as more and more people participate in the calling, the screen lights up with dozens of little boxes of mustachioed gay men on phones. It struck me that if this took place in the present time, everyone would be sending emails and Facebook messages…

Anyway, unless some miracle occurs, this film just won’t win a big award. That’s because it’s actually documenting something real about how change happens in this country, and that reality runs counter to the myth of the individual that Hollywood is built to sell.

That story is not just about one man or woman riding into town and swimming against the current to save the day (though that is definitely a part of it). It’s also about building coalitions (I love the way Milk reached out to the Teamsters, the black community and even the senior citizens). It’s about how we recruiting organizers from the community to become leaders, and how we give them their own bullhorns when it’s their time (as in the scene when Cleve Jones — wonderfully played by Emile Hirsch — takes Milk’s place on the soapbox). Organizing is about more than this, of course, and it’s too complicated and unsexy for a Hollywood film. Gus Vant Sant does a tremendous job of rendering the story in a smooth, engaging narrative, but the themes is just not the stuff the Oscars are made of.

Instead, the Academy gives awards to films that fulfill some vision of the American dream: films about bootstrappers that lift themselves up and take on powerful forces; about love conquering adversity; or about both of these things. What most of the winning films — and actors — have in common is that they portray the victory of heroic individuals over faceless crowds. In Hollywood’s America, social movements are built by singular visionaries who recruit others with their charm, intelligence, and wit, not the hard work of coalition building and organizing.

It’s not just Hollywood that perpetuates this plotline — ask any schoolchild to name a civil rights leader beyond Martin Luther King, Jr. My bet is they can’t, not because their aren’t any, but because in school most of us are only taught about this one man who moved mountains, who gave soaring speeches. Nothing usually emerges about the movement the he helped build and that supported him, or that hundreds of other strong leaders from that time.

But Milk manages to play both to Hollywood convention and to reality, giving us a grand portrait of a movement and a time. On top of that, instead of some Birdcage nonsense, we get an honest-to-goodness portrayal of gay life in the ’70s, complete with anonymous sex, carnivalesque street celebrations, angry rioting, and a diverse group of every kind of gay man imaginable (and a few lesbians too).

The film is too real. And too good. For that reason, it won’t win.



  1. Great writeup, Josh. Your points about social movements and organizing are exactly right. It reminds me of the myth of 1%, sometimes called the myth of the charismatic leader — that social change happens because of the 1% of people who can bear the burdens of the world/act as a social justice messiah/inspire the masses. You can see this with the ongoing myth around Rosa Parks, that she was just an average woman who decided one day to fight segregated busing, when in fact she had systematically studied and trained at the Highlander Folk School and was anything but accidental. The myth is that the 1% makes the change happen, and the reality is that it’s the 99% (the social movement) that actually keeps up the pressure and achieves the win.

    I’ve been part of countless organizations and coalitions in which there were large numbers of people working on an issue, but media and politicians wanted a single “leader” or “spokesperson” to point to. We gave it to them, but not because that one person was actually in charge.

    I suspect that in the United States, the reason this myth is so powerful is because of our strong-leader type of government (president, governors, mayors) which isn’t as prevalent in places where there are more robust parliaments and labor unions. Interestingly, when social movements from other places get covered in the U.S., they usually get filtered through that same myth, and you end up with the charismatic leader (Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Rigoberta Menchú, Jaime Sin, etc.) remembered rather than the movement. Nor are progressives immune from the myth — e.g. Che Guevara — although the Zapatistas are an interesting and notable challenge to the myth.

    “A Force More Powerful” is a great book/film that talks a little about this myth in covering various world social movements.

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