Milk, and the Narrative Power of Print

Every sign tells a story.

Every year, around Oscar time, I try to see the big movies of the year. Some I see before the Oscars, some I see after. So although all the buzz is so last weekend, I just had a chance to see Milk, and besides being blown away by the film itself, I was very impressed by the use of political printing as a narrative device in the story.

Milk chronicles the rise of the gay rights movement in San Franciso in the 70s. The story centers around Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, and his years of campaigning. He runs his campaigns out of a photo printing shop that he owns, which gives him the opportunity to do a lot of election campaign printing, and what starts out as a few controversial signs displayed around a soapbox on a street corner, grows into a massive, and well-supported political printing campaign.

The filmmakers did an amazing job of using sign, flyer, and apparel printing to show how the campaign moves from a homemade operation, spearheaded by a small photo printing shop, to a large, organized campaign with visually consistent print collateral. This movement, of course, parallels the expansion of acceptance surrounding gay rights, which is portrayed, perhaps for the first time in mainstream media, as having been very akin to other mid-century civil rights movements.

I doubt that many people are aware of how much marching, sign-waving, and political deal-making were involved in this phase of action for gay rights, and I'm proud that political printing could be part of telling this story.

Unlike in the film Bolt, where printing was used in a more incidental sense to help tell the story, printing is used in Milk as a powerful tool of communication. People handing out pamphlets beg and argue with passersby to read the small tracts containing big ideas. Supporters holding Milk signs clash with those holding anti-gay banners. Even wearing a button, sticker, or t-shirt is portrayed as having the potential to lead to a violent clash.

Much of the film's controversy is also centered around businesses that either chose to support or snub the gay community, and the point is made that bigotry is always bad for business. This makes me wonder, during the 70s, in San Francisco, who was printing for the gay rights activists, and who was printing for the groups that opposed them? Were printers just taking the jobs as they came along, or did you have to know where to go to have your signs and pamphlets printed?

What do you think? Would you work with a printer that made ideological choices about what they printed, or refused to print? Is it a printer's job to make this type of decision? The film Milk is a great example of how printing is often a political action – looking forward to your thoughts on the subject!

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