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Harvey Milk Movie Essay Topics

Classroom Activities

1. Develop classroom dialogues around the following propositions:

Resolved:        Harvey Milk’s emphasis on populism diminished the power of LGBTQ communities as primary agents.

Resolved:        The “hope trope,” while powerful, had limited utility in the face of manifest exigencies for the LGBTQ community and other oppressed communities.

2. Discuss Harvey Milk’s audiences. How did he address hardcore members of the LGBTQ community, more moderate members of the LGBTQ community, straight-oppositional audiences, straight-allied audiences, oppressed groups, and those in the dominant public (i.e., governmental officials and business leaders)? What language did he use to address these different audiences?

3. Identify the social, economic, and political imperatives that might have motivated the dominant public to reject Milk’s messages of LGBTQ strength and social change.

4. In the essay, much is made of public memory and the ways that Harvey Milk and his legacy can be drawn upon in contemporary issues about both LGBTQ politics and subaltern politics generally.  Discuss the implications of drawing on/from Milk’s memory.  Moreover, what is the overall utility of relying on memories of key leaders of social change overall?

5. In the essay, the authors discuss the potential absence and/or obscuring of GLTBQ histories.  What is the impact of such an erasure?  How can this erasure be addressed and corrected?  Provide prescriptive ways that these LGBTQ histories can be brought to bear on more contemporary issues.

6. Issues about the “agency” of the reader/critic abound in rhetorical studies.  Considering that every reader brings to bear their own ideologies, subjectivities, and politics to the texts that they read, how might a heterosexual audience/critic interpret Milk’s address?  How might folks identifying as LGBTQ interpret Milk’s address?  Be sure to discuss these possible interpretations over key issues mentioned in the essay, including coalition-building, populism, the idea of hope, and the importance of GLTBQ-centered leadership.

Student Research

1. Use four different research tools (web sites, academic articles, newspaper archives, speeches, books, audio-visual media, etc.) to learn about twentieth century LGBTQ histories and issues before, during, and after Harvey Milk’s time.  What are some key moments of dispute, controversy, sources of pride and liberation, and/or confrontation that may have precipitated the increased activism of LGBTQ peoples and movements?

2. Use four different research tools (web sites, academic articles, newspaper archives, speeches, books, audio-visual media, etc.) to learn about the history ofSan Franciscoin terms of its place in the larger U.S. LGBTQ movement.

3. What is the relationship between victim and survivor in Milk’s address?  How does he balance positioning LGBTQ and disenfranchised groups as oppressed, while also demonstrating their strength and pride?  How does such a balance impact a rhetor’s ethos and the identity of those audiences whom he addresses?

4. Using an appropriate textbook or academic article, look up the term “social movement” and discuss whether you think Milk’s efforts for social change fit into the definition’s parameters.  Do your findings affect the way you “read” and analyze the speech’s impact, as well as its form, substance, and style?

5. Accessing “genre criticism,” make an argument for how Milk’s speech falls into a particular category of public discourse based on situation/exigence, style, form, and content.

6. Locate two other pieces of LGBTQ discourse from Milk’s time.  What are the arguments made?  Are they similar to Milk’s speech?  Different?  How so?

7. Locate two other pieces of LGBTQ discourse from more contemporary times.  What are the arguments made?  Are they similar to Milk’s speech?  Different?  How so?

8. Locate contemporary discourses of LGBTQ peoples and ascertain if, and how, Harvey Milk’s legacy is relied upon in their arguments.

9. Recalling Milk’s emphasis on “hope,” find other instances of this theme in social movement discourse from other social change groups like the Abolitionist movement, the Suffrage movement, the Farm Workers Union, the mainstream Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Women’s Rights/Feminist movements, the La Raza movement, Native American movements, Pan-Asian movements, labor unions, etc.  How do these movements’ use of “hope” compare or contrast to Milk’s discourse?

Citizenship Resources

1. Review a civic web site (i.e., Lambda or PFLAG), a national archival repository (i.e., Library of Congress online), a local archive or library collection, etc. and identify the ways that these locations catalog and present LGBTQ resources and discourses.  How does this presentation impact the presence and/or absence of LGBTQ voices in the “archive”?

2. Contact a LGBTQ-centered organization (i.e., PFLAG, Lambda) and ask to interview someone in the leadership of the organization.  Ask them about their views on the state of current LGBTQ politics; compare them to interviews with other leaders from various organizations.  Ask these leaders about the importance of “memory” for the LGBTQ movement and its causes.  Ask these leaders about their view of Harvey Milk as a generative force in contemporary LGBTQ politics.

3. Contact a LGBTQ-centered organization (i.e., PFLAG, Lambda) and ask to interview someone in the leadership of the organization.  Ask them about their views on coalition-building as a historical and contemporary strategy for building efforts toward social change.  What groups have they coaligned with; why and to what levels of success?

4. Access a LGBTQ-centered website (i.e., www.towleroad.com) that links thousands of LGBTQ folks in theUnited States into an online community and provides forums for the discussion of community, electoral politics, social change, legal issues, partner/domestic issues, etc.  Access a forum and read postings, concentrating on the arguments being made and the rhetorical strategies being used.

5. Access popular press narratives (i.e., Love, Castro Street) and concentrate an analysis on the arguments being made and the rhetorical strategies being used.  How do peoples’ experiences matter in their overall points about self, community, progress, and politics?

6. Watch a LGBTQ film (i.e., Milk) or documentary (i.e., The Times of Harvey Milk) and discuss how LGBTQ histories, peoples, and issues are represented.  What are the arguments made or themes attended to in the film or documentary?  Which leaders are spotlighted and to what issues do they respond?  How are political issues discussed?  Are oppositional voices represented?  What do they say, and how do they articulate their positions and arguments?  What is the “moral” of these films and documentaries.  In other words, what are viewers expected to take away?

7. Access visual, performative, or musical discourses of LGBTQ peoples and concentrate an analysis on the arguments being made and the rhetorical strategies being used.  How do peoples’ experiences matter in their overall points about self, community, progress, and politics?

8. Locate the websites of politicians who take pro-LGBTQ stances.  What issues related to LGBTQ culture and life do they discuss?  What types of legislation have they proposed and/or supported regarding LGBTQ peoples?

9. Explore media discourses surrounding the following issues: Proposition 8, partner rights, youth bullying, pop-cult representations of LGBTQ peoples, LGBTQ politics, etc.  How are these issues framed?  To what benefit?  To what detriment?

10. Explore televisual discourses surrounding the following issues: Proposition 8, partner rights, youth bullying, pop-cult representations of LGBTQ peoples, LGBTQ politics, etc.  How are these issues framed?  To what benefit?  To what detriment?

11. Explore comedic discourses (i.e., The Daily Show; Tosh.0) surrounding the following issues: Proposition 8, partner rights, youth bullying, pop-cult representations of LGBTQ peoples, LGBTQ politics, etc.  How are these issues framed?  To what benefit?  To what detriment?

Last updated May 6, 2016

The critics are agreed: Gus van Sant's biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in California, is a blistering masterpiece, featuring Sean Penn's best performance in years. It's the tale of a man who defied the odds to make something spectacular of himself at an age when he might easily have settled for comfortable mediocrity. And it's also a film which defies its niche demographic to speak to the hearts of anyone who has ever felt themselves raging against injustice.

There is, however, the odd dissenting voice, suggesting that - subject matter aside - this is a plastic-packaged potboiler designed to appeal to Academy voters, much as many of Van Sant's mid-period movies did, before his return to more difficult, disparate material in the early part of this decade.

Milk is all about ... well, Milk, a former Wall Street researcher in his late 30s who departed for the supposed new gay Jerusalem of San Francisco in the early 1970s, only to discover a community facing rabid police oppression and bigotry. After three unsuccessful attempts, he was finally elected to the city's board of supervisors in 1977, becoming the US's first ever openly gay politician. Soon afterwards (spoiler alert) he was shot dead by a disgruntled political rival who may or may not have been struggling to deal with his own latent homosexuality.

"It's a wonderfully evocative film, radiating with warmth and humour, bristling too with righteous rage," writes the Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu. "Van Sant draws liberally on Rob Epstein's excellent Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), and extracts top-rate performances from Josh Brolin as Milk's murderer, Diego Luna as his lover, and Emile Hirsch as a street kid turned activist. His cinematographer Harris Savides blends archival footage, still photography and grainily-shot action to recreate perfectly the hothouse atmosphere of 1970s San Francisco."

"Penn has been fairly quiet since 2005's The Interpreter, but his never-off-screen Harvey Milk will surely install the 48-year-old as an ante-post favourite for this season's mandatory gong slog," writes Empire's Colin Kennedy. "Penn naturally nails all the mannerisms and lands the showreel moments cold, but also finds sufficient space amid the historical milestones to hint at the intensely private pain that underpins Milk's mission."

"Sean Penn never tries to show Harvey Milk as a hero, and never needs to," writes the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert. "He shows him as an ordinary man, kind, funny, flawed, shrewd, idealistic, yearning for a better world. He shows what such an ordinary man can achieve. Milk was the right person in the right place at the right time, and he rose to the occasion. So was Rosa Parks. Sometimes, at a precise moment in history, all it takes is for one person to stand up. Or sit down."

Finally, our own Peter Bradshaw recognises Penn's "ferocious virility and detailed concentration". But he adds: "I felt that Milk is a slightly staid film, closer to the middle-of-the-road side of Gus van Sant's film-making persona, the bland side that made his treacly Sean Connery film Finding Forrester, and its liberal-inspirational gestures are a little calculated for the awards and prestige."

It's true that Milk does look a lot like your common-or-garden awards season biopic, but for me, this is a film with the depth and heart to transcend the odd spot of Hollywood bluster. Penn's performance is at the centre of that, but the entire cast pulls its weight with admiral vim, and it's hard not to be carried along on the jubilant crest of San Fran's chaotic gay rights wave. One moment in particular, when Milk realises he's been elected after spending seven years in the attempt, doesn't so much tug on the heartstrings as rip them out of your chest.

What's your view on van Sant's latest? It may be running just behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire in terms of Oscar nominations, but Penn is surely right up there for the best actor gong, wouldn't you agree?

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