Where’s Harry?

Pub date November 18, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

History is written by the winners, the survivors — and sometimes the people who try the hardest. And while Milk hews pretty closely to reality, some of the people who lived through the story say a few key pieces are missing.

On the night Sup. Harvey Milk was assassinated, for example, a crowd gathered in the Castro for a march to City Hall. In the movie, the key protagonists — Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg — pull the spontaneous event together. Sup. Tom Ammiano, who was there, remembers it a bit differently.

"The whole thing started at Harry Britt’s house," Ammiano told us.

Britt, who was appointed as Milk’s successor on the board, "lived at 16th and Castro, and we were all gathered there on his steps" Ammiano said. "I asked what I could do, and he told me to run out and get some black ribbons. So I went to Cliff’s Hardware and bought out every black ribbon in the place.

"Harry was the focal point. It all started with him."

But Britt — one of Milk’s confidants and by any standard one of the most important gay politicians in the city’s history — isn’t mentioned in the movie.

There are, of course, plenty of events and people left out of what could only be, at best, a snapshot of history. Milk isn’t a documentary; it’s a feature film. Jones, who served as a script consultant, told us that "the hardest decision was what to cut…. There were a lot of people close to Harvey who didn’t make it."

It’s no secret that Jones and Britt are not close, and that the former supervisor has been out of the political limelight for years. He told me this week that he doesn’t want to talk about the film. ("I had the privilege to know Harvey myself, and I don’t want to see him through someone else’s eyes," he said.) But still, the absence of Britt, who picked up and carried Milk’s torch for many long years, is striking.

Ammiano, who loved the movie overall, agreed that it was odd not to see Britt depicted in any of the key scenes. "It’s funny when you live through history, when you were there, and then to see how it’s reported," he said. "History is written by he or she who tells it."

And while, to a certain extent, the movie feels like the Cleve Jones Show (and Jones happily told me he feels like he’s becoming "the most famous homosexual you know"), Ammiano credited Jones with pushing to make the film happen.

"Cleve wanted the story told, and for 15 years he’s been pushing it," Ammiano said. "It’s a huge personal accomplishment for him, and this is his reward."