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Interview: Cleve Jones

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By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 25, 2008


VIDEO: Peter Keough interviews Cleve Jones

Few of us get a chance to relive our youth, let alone with Gus Van Sant directing and Emile Hirsch as our stand-in. That's one reason Cleve Jones is happy, as Milk — the bio-pic about the San Francisco city supervisor who was the first openly gay man elected to public office — opens today (November 26), one day short of the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk's murder. As you'll see in the movie, Milk turned the young Jones onto politics back in the '70s, and the protûgû has since kept up the good fight, as one of the founding creators of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the '80s, and more recently in the campaign against California's Proposition 8, which calls for a ban on same-sex marriage. But that last is one reason Jones isn't happy: unlike Proposition 6, a ban on gays in government jobs that Milk helped defeat in 1978, Proposition 8 passed, along with similar initiatives in three other states.

You played a role in the film?
I have three cameos. I played Don Amador [an activist friend of Milk] calling with the news of winning in LA [to defeat Proposition 6], and then I'm slumped over a cocktail in a bar when Emile Hirsch bursts in and says, "Out of the bars and into the streets!" And then I'm also on stage clapping when Sean as Harvey gives his speech at City Hall.

Is that a beginning of a movie career for you?
Oh God, I hope not.

What's it like in the scene when your younger self comes in and confronts who you are 30 years later?
It was poignant and eerie and odd, but it was also great fun because all of our cast and all of our crew were so excited to be part of this project, and there was this great sense of family. We all became friends, and we've remained friends. Everyone was so respectful of Harvey, of the neighborhood, and of the movement. I'm 54, and this is the most wonderful year of my life — truly, it's just great.

Did your first meeting with Harvey happen as it did in the movie? [Young Cleve dismisses Milk as too old and square.]
It is very accurate. I didn't take Harvey seriously at first. He was this character always running for office, and he had a ponytail, and I wasn't that interested in electoral politics. I thought we needed a revolution. I'm more hopeful today. I'm excited and inspired by Obama's victory.

Do you think this film would have been more effective in the campaign against Proposition 8 if it had been released before the election?
Of course everybody is asking me this now, and it's very frustrating. All of these details were planned months in advance, when Proposition 8 was losing by 10 points. I don't think any of us in California thought there was a chance we could lose. We wanted the film to come out on the 30th anniversary of his murder, and we didn't want it to come out during the height of the campaign season because we were afraid people would not have time to see it. I mean, I would not have had time to see it; I was canvassing for Obama in Nevada.

Which he won!
Yeah.

Good job.
I work for a hotel workers' union, and we're very strong in Nevada. But now we've ended up with this really peculiar confluence of events: unexpected defeat on the same day of this extraordinary victory.

Recently, you and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black put out a manifesto, "Seven Weeks of Equality."
We want to encourage the people that are protesting to stay in the streets, to escalate their actions, and to be as strong and as fierce and as ferocious as possible. Even more important, we want them to understand that victory will not come from the states. While many people will see this film and look back to 1978 for inspiration, I think, strategically, people need to look back to 1964, when it became clear that the Southern states would never grant civil rights to African-Americans. It was then that President Johnson and the Congress moved forward with the Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing equality under the law to African-Americans in all 50 states.

I'm not waiting anymore. I've waited a very long time to see very little progress. I have waited a long time for a president whom I can respect and for the Democrats to control both houses of Congress. We have this unique opportunity. We have the hope and inspiration provided to us by Barack Obama, and we have the bitterness of the defeat in California. We have millions of young people in the streets at a level of activism that is unprecedented. I'm 54, and I've never seen such a level of activism in my lifetime. While I cannot yet identify for you who is that charismatic leader who will take us to the next level, I have a feeling that he or she is out there on the streets right now, on Facebook and MySpace, organizing.

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  Topics: Features , Cleve Jones , Harvey Milk , Milk ,  More more >
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