Watching Milk at this point in history is like experiencing déjà vu.
Debuting just weeks after California became the first state to vote to revoke rights from the LGBT community, Gus Van Sant's Milk tells a parallel story—gay activist Harvey Milk's rise to political office, and his fight to convince California voters to knock down a 1978 right-wing ballot measure. That year, thanks largely to Milk's fight, voters opted not to fire gay teachers when they sank Proposition 6. This year, voters decided to take away marriage equality by approving Proposition 8.
The parallels are so stark that it's now impossible to see Milk without thinking of the recent Prop 8 protests. Even James Franco, who plays Milk's boyfriend, Scott Smith, in the film, attended a Proposition 8 rally, alongside Van Sant and the film's screenwriter. "I went to a big march in Silver Lake. I think there were like 10,000 people there," Franco told the Mercury before Milk played in Portland on November 14. Speakers at anti-Prop 8 rallies are repeating Milk's words, from his trademark opening line—"I'm here to recruit you!"—to his calls to simply come out. And people are now marching in the streets, as they did when following Milk to the steps of San Francisco's city hall in protest.
The funny thing is, the political timing of Van Sant's latest film was completely unintentional: Van Sant set out years ago to tell the story of an under-known hero, and he did just that, crafting a film that's as much a biopic and a love story as it is a political statement.
"It's kind of a biopic. It's about Harvey Milk," acknowledges Franco. "But it doesn't feel like a biopic. It's got important political issues, but it also feels very intimate and personal. There's a love story, there's a relationship. You get a real sense of the people in that time and place."
Though the timing of the release is going to amplify the political aspects of Milk, the film's other elements are strong enough to stand on their own. Milk was a small business owner, a community activist, and a guy with devoted friends and a wicked sense of humor. Sean Penn captures all of this, even down to the lanky way Milk would wave to the crowd during gay pride parades, and by the end, it's abundantly clear why tens of thousands of people took to the streets after Milk's murder. Meanwhile, the supporting cast, including Franco, gives strong performances that lift Penn's even higher.
For a generation of gay and straight people who equate pride parades with binge drinking, whose gay heroes include Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper (he's gay, right?), and whose gay rights movement has just started, fleshing out Milk's story in such a moving and humane way is as invaluable as the words he'd bark through bullhorns. Sure, Van Sant can't resist putting in some treacly, melodramatic scenes that unfortunately stick out, but for the most part, Milk's story is simply real, which makes it that much more powerful and relevant.
"I grew up in the Bay Area, 45 minutes from San Francisco, in Palo Alto. And when I heard about this movie, I did some research," says Franco. "The first thing I did was watch the documentary [The Times of Harvey Milk], and I think Harvey's image seemed familiar, like maybe I'd seen a poster of him in San Francisco when I was younger. But nobody taught me anything about who he was, and I grew up in the Bay Area! So I'm just hoping that this movie raises the awareness of who he was and shows a figure who made significant change happen because of his actions."
To read the entirety of the Mercury's interview with James Franco, click here.