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.
But there is more progress to be made, Jones says, and moreover, he has a promise to keep.
Eighteen years ago, he became friends with director Gus Van Sant, who had approached him with the idea of doing a feature film about Milk. That project fell through, but the two became roommates briefly and kept in touch through the years, Jones continually pressing Van Sant to return to the story.
There was a lot of interest. Jones estimates he has read more than 40 scripts and screenplays tackling Milk's tale, though, "none of them I remember as being very good at all."
Then a few years ago, Jones had a chance meeting with Dustin Lance Black, a writer in his late 20s who tagged along with a friend interested in doing a musical based on Jones's life. (For the record, that project also fell through.) Jones encouraged Black, who was fascinated with Milk's life, to try his hand at a screenplay about the activist.
"The last week of February 2007, he showed me the first draft, and it was really excellent," Jones says. He immediately called Van Sant and a week later drove Black to meet the Oscar-nominated director. "I didn't have to say a word. They immediately got into the strategy of what would be the challenges of telling the story, the little details about it."
Penn quickly signed on, and a feature film about Milk was underway.
Filming took place in San Francisco, where 1978 was brought back to life on Castro Street, right down to the reconstruction of Milk's camera shop in its former location. Jones was on set every day advising and helping designers execute Van Sant's directive to just "make it real."
For the former protege, now a bespectacled man in his mid-50s, it was thrilling and once again wrenching.
"Revisiting that period was painful because everybody I knew -- almost everybody I knew -- has died," he says, voice cracking. "So dredging up those memories in the past has not been a pleasant experience and was something I avoided.
"In a way, this film gave me back memories that had been too painful to recall for a long time."
Jones now deems the three decades it took to get the film together fated. Even 10 years ago, he postulates, a movie like this might not have gotten a wide release. Now, he's confident that "Milk," distributed by Focus Features, which also handled "Brokeback Mountain," will reach beyond art-house crowds and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
"That's part of why the whole miracle of the timing to me is just so lovely," he says. "After waiting and waiting and waiting and then suddenly: Boom! It happens. And happens with breathtaking speed and this magic alignment of talent."
And Jones is happy with the result of that alignment: a film that encompasses the personal and political facets of Milk's story and doesn't treat the man's life to posthumous airbrushing.
Jones knew it was his boss who lay dead on the floor of City Hall that November day. He recognized the shoes stretching out from the doorway: a pair of old, thrift-store wingtips, soles worn clean through.
Milk was broke. His relationships were routinely in disarray. His life was anything but perfect.
Which is, to Jones, the most important part.
"In most regards he was an ordinary person," he says softly. "I think there's a great lesson for us . . . to see an ordinary man who did, in fact, change the world."
Milk R, 128 minutes Contains language, sexual content and brief violence. This movie opens Wednesday at area theaters.