Blending in and Standing Out: Storytelling and Genre in the LGBT Biopics Milk and Pedro
Milk (Van Sant, 2008) first introduces its titular hero not by recreating one of his many rousing speeches in front of roaring crowds or canny political strategy sessions with his band of upstart activists, but alone in his kitchen, pressing 'record' on a cassette recorder (Figure 1). Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) introduces himself and states the date, directing that the tape--his will--be played only in the event of his assassination. The contrast between the gregarious, 'never blend in', self-proclaimed 'Mayor of Castro Street' and the quiet, confessional monologue is just one of the many ways in which the film, like many biopics, promises a more intimate understanding of the person behind the headlines. While the trope of having a biopic protagonist narrate her or his own story is not new (utilized as far back as Yankee Doodle Dandy [Curtiz, 1942] or as recently as The Imitation Game [Tyldum, 2014], for example), it is only one of the ways in which the filmmakers, including screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Gus Van Sant, foreground the narrative agency of its protagonist, framing Milk not only as an authoritative narrator but also as a storyteller poised for posterity. Throughout the film Milk reflexively articulates his legacy, using the telling of stories (and especially the coming-out story) as essential tools for garnering recognition and rights for the LGBTQ community, fighting against political foes determined to demonize the queer community and a wider society conditioned to its containment.
The political and personal utility of storytelling is also foregrounded in Pedro (Oceano, 2008), a biopic of Pedro Zamora, AIDS educator and housemate on the 1993 season of the MTV reality series The Real World (1992-present). Like Milk, Zamora was valorized during his lifetime, most notably for his ability to reframe the then-dominant stereotype of AIDS survivor and gay man during his tenure on The Real World. Erika Suderburg argues that 'he was able to navigate the artificial boundaries of The Real World house through a series of impassioned and volatile debates that refused both his silencing and his victimization' (Suderburg 1997: 58-59). The biopic Pedro, also written by Dustin Lance Black and telecast on MTV in the successful wake of Milk, features Zamora as a similarly savvy interlocutor of his own identity and legacy. Utilizing the surveilling gaze of the omnipresent cameras, Zamora is frequently shown framing his AIDS advocacy for maximum impact, turning every interaction into a learning opportunity for his housemates and viewers (Figure 2). Even more so than Milk is aware of his own mortality and potential legacy, Zamora remains on the series despite his declining health, eventually making history when his commitment ceremony with a fellow AIDS educator was filmed as part of the series (a US television first). Zamora died soon after the last episodes aired.
Both Milk and Pedro tell the stories of these gay lives that foreground the practice and political efficacy of storytelling through their protagonists' assertive control over their own legacies. With varying degrees of self-awareness, the protagonists articulate the challenges of homophobia, AIDS-phobia and the destructive power of the closet. Utilizing the historiographic function of the biopic genre, the three films make the case that each of these queer lives deserves to be remembered decades after their respective deaths. Through a textual analysis of the films' focus on their protagonists' use of narrative in both personal and professional contexts, I argue that the films exemplify the biopic of 'minority appropriation' per biopic scholar Dennis Bingham (2010: 18). In this mode, heretofore diminished or elided figures (whether by race, gender or sexuality) 'own the conventionalizing mythologizing form that once would have been used to marginalize or stigmatize them' (Bingham 2010:18). That form can often slide into hagiography but here can be used to legitimize a subject, both historically and in contemporary public consciousness. While this approach is by no means the only mode available to biopic filmmakers seeking to represent the lives of LGBTQ individuals, it is noteworthy that these two films are written by the same screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, who has made popular queer historiography his most prominent subject. Black also wrote the biopic of closeted J. Edgar Hoover (J. Edgar [Eastwood, 2008]), a play about the arguments for striking down Proposition 8, California's anti-same-sex marriage law (8 [Mantello, 2011]), and created the LGBTQ rights miniseries When We Rise (2017, USA: ABC). In 2015, Black addressed students at the University of Dublin, accepting an Honorary Life Membership in the university's Law Society. Black spoke about the power of storytelling in affecting political change. 'Time and again you [cannot] really change minds by arguing the truths, by arguing the facts, the science. Even if [you are] on the winning side of all that science, the thing that changes hearts and minds is story' (University College Dublin 2015). How Black and his directors use storytelling through deployment of various biopic conventions and how the protagonists themselves use storytelling to frame their personal and political histories is the focus of this essay.