Cleve Jones Discusses 'Milk,' a Film About Activist Harvey Milk

Emile Hirsch, left, plays Cleve Jones in the film "Milk," about slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Jones, right, was a friend of Milk's.
Emile Hirsch, left, plays Cleve Jones in the film "Milk," about slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Jones, right, was a friend of Milk's. (Photos By Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

On the night of Nov. 21, 1978, hours after he found the slain body of his friend and mentor, Cleve Jones stood at the center of a candlelight vigil and made this promise to his friend: "For the rest of my life I will do whatever I can do to keep your name alive."

But as time went on, the vow became harder to keep.

Eyes didn't widen or well up at the mention of Harvey Milk. Even people living in San Francisco, especially young ones, didn't know that Milk was an early leader of the gay rights movement. That he rose from lowly camera-store owner to the nation's first openly gay elected official and champion of an enduring civil rights movement.

That he and the mayor were shot in cold blood by a former city council member.

After 30 years, Milk was beginning to be forgotten.

"I began to despair," Jones says, "and think that I would not live long enough to see this story make it to the screen."

Jones was convinced that it was only through the big screen that his friend's tale could fully reenter the collective American psyche. His theory will be tested now, as "Milk," the biopic of his friend as played by Sean Penn, is released nationwide Wednesday.

Jones was in his early 20s and estranged from his parents when he met Milk while walking down Castro Street in San Francisco. Though he didn't initially take the eccentric man's politics seriously, Jones reluctantly found himself reeled in by Milk's warmth.

"I needed a father figure, and Harvey was really such an appropriate mentor," Jones says from the couch of a Georgetown hotel suite during a press tour for the film. "He was extraordinarily kind to me and saw strengths in me that I didn't even know I had."

Jones says Milk taught him how to speak in public, how to lead others and how to believe in himself. The protege has gone on to become a renowned activist in his own right, a labor organizer and the founder of the stirring AIDS quilt that traveled the country and was spread across the Mall in 1996. None of that would've happened, Jones insists, had he never met Milk.

So at every speaking engagement and in every possible conversation, Jones intones the name of his assassinated friend. And though there have been books and documentaries (one that nabbed an Oscar) about Milk, mentions of the man were increasingly met with blank stares.

Because in many ways, the world moved on. Much of what Milk fought for has been realized; maybe so much so that his story was expedited into the annals of history. Milk's movement came from a different century, when gay men could be beaten or arrested just for gathering in the clubs of San Francisco.

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