The movie Milk tells the story of the “Mayor of Castro Street,” Harvey Milk, an early gay rights activist and San Francisco city council member who changed the course of history during the 1970’s.
Aside from the political and historical issues (about which see also the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk), this is a very human story. It begins when Milk is about to turn forty, and has been living in the closet his entire adult life. In speaking to the man he has just fallen for, he sadly explains that on his fortieth birthday, he has done absolutely nothing that he can be proud of.
Yet after that realization, he quits his job and moves to San Francisco to begin an entirely new life as a businessman, politician and, most importantly, as an authentic human being who has finally decided to be himself.
Not that his new life was easy. He lost many elections before winning only one. He suffered heartbreak in love and in political life. But no one could accuse this man of letting life pass him by. At an age when many of us are slowing down, he picked up the pace. He decided to run the race of life like he intended to win it.
Yet in a strange twist, Milk met his match in another late bloomer, Anita Bryant. The former frothy orange juice spokesmodel found her own political passion for a cause in middle age, leading the fight for the Christian right against gay rights. The news footage of her does not stand the test of time well. Her “family values” language is a soft-spoken screed against a small group of people who want the same rights as the rest of the country. Nobody will leave this movie wanting to be Anita Bryant (but perhaps that is because she does not have a gifted Hollywood actor portraying her).
Wherever one is on the political issues, Milk is a historical character worth knowing about, as much for his ability to jumpstart his life as his historical significance. By the time his life ended, in a tragic assassination in 1978, Milk had accomplished more than most of us would hope to in a lifetime, yet all this happened before he turned fifty. And remarkably, it all began less than a decade earlier. Part of what makes his life so interesting is how much he packed into a short period of time, once he decided to start living, and leading. One followed the other.
It’s easy for leaders to despair that we have not accomplished the things we once dreamed of. What’s holding you back? Is there something keeping you from being your authentic self, the one God has called to make a difference in the world?
Most of us won’t have movies made about our lives. But we ought to be leading lives that have a story worth telling. And in the story of Harvey Milk, and Anita Bryant, we learn that leadership can call just when, and upon those, we least expect.