Blending in and standing out: Storytelling and genre in the LGBT biopics Milk and Pedro

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Author: Jonathan Lupo
Date: June 2017
From: Queer Studies in Media & Pop Culture(Vol. 2, Issue 2)
Publisher: Intellect Ltd.
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,676 words
Lexile Measure: 1610L

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This article considers the deployment of self-reflexive storytelling strategies by the titular protagonists in the LGBT biopics Milk (Van Sant, 2008) and Pedro (Oceano, 2008). Written by Dustin Lance Black, both films utilize the formal and narrative conventions as well as the historiographic features of the biopic genre to legitimize its subjects in contemporary culture. Furthermore, Harvey Milk and Pedro Zamora foreground the practice and political utility of storytelling as they assert control over their tragic yet ultimately hopeful legacies. Through a textual analysis of the films, the article examines how the films intersect with the LGBT biopic as a subgenre of the contemporary biographical film and as popular queer history.





LGBT history

queer visibility



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. (1)

At its root, the biopic refers to a film 'that depicts the life of a historical person, past or present' (Custen 1992: 5). At its loftiest, the aim of the biopic 'is to enter the biographical subject in the pantheon of cultural mythology, one way or another and show why he or she belongs there' (Bingham 2010: 10). Drawing from the popular understanding of literary biography (but rarely its treatment of an entire life), the biopic is a remarkably resilient genre, consistently produced since the early days of cinema and throughout the studio era (Custen 1992). The biopic adapted to television early and remains today a popular genre for auteurs and stars, particularly for those angling for awards consideration (Custen 2000). The biopic has also proven as fluid as other genres by reflecting evolving social and cultural values; for the biopic, this means considering contemporaneous notions of fame, genius and whose life 'deserves' the biopic treatment. Like other genres, many of the biopic's core conventions (such as use of flashbacks, reliance on montage and emphasis on a single 'big break' as a dramatic turning point) have remained stable throughout its various permutations (Custen 1992:177-213). Bingham argues that there are seven modes of biopics, adapted from various developmental stages throughout its Hollywood history and available to the contemporary filmmaker: the celebratory form; the warts-and-all approach; the auteurist treatment; the critical dissection; parody (in terms of genre conventions or in choice of subject); minority appropriation; and the 'neoclassical biopic', which incorporates several modes (Bingham 2010: 17-18). As a genre, the biopic shares tropes and foci with docudrama and fictional historical drama and has branched off into several sub-genres like the sports biopic and musical biopic (Anderson and Lupo 2002: 91-2).

Given Hollywood's long-standing marginalization of LGBTQ lives as outlined in The Celluloid Closet (Vito Russo 1981), it is not a surprise that biopics featuring LGBTQ protagonists did not accrue enough to be considered a subgenre until the early 2000s, the result of the decline of the studioera Production Code (which forbade depictions of homosexuality, leading to 'straightwashed' biopics of figures like Cole Porter in Night and Day [Curtiz, 1946]) and the rise of global independent cinema in the 1980s, peaking in the 1990s' cycle of notable LGBTQ independent film production known as 'New Queer Cinema' (NQC).

Julia Erhart makes an effective case for the contemporary (1990s onwards) LGBTQ biopic, finding that queer lives 'have made and continue to make appropriate biopic subjects whose figuration shifts depending on prevailing cultural expectations and available commercial forms' (Erhart 2016: 271). While Erhart effectively argues that there is 'no single unified LGBTQ biopic', she does organize contemporary examples into two broad groupings whose classifications frequently overlap (Erhart 2016: 271). One category of LGBTQ biopics features notable cultural figures who generally offer 'positive contributions to society and culture' and whose sexuality and/or gender non-conformity 'are central to the biopic subject's identity, significantly impacting his or her life and work' (Erhart 2016: 273, 274). Examples include Before Night Falls (Schnabel, 2000), about poet Reinaldo Arenas, Frida (Taymor, 2002), about artist Frida Kahlo, and De-Lovely (Winkler, 2004), about composer Cole Porter. Pedro, which encapsulates some of his pre-Real World advocacy, would likely fit under this rubric. A subset of this group includes individuals who are notable in part due to their legacy as victims of homophobic violence (as in Boys Don't Cry [Pierce, 1999] and The Matthew Shephard Story [Spottiswoode, 2002]); Milk is an example of a film that shares characteristics from both sets. For Erhart, films such as these serve as 'a corrective against both the industrially sanctioned repression of images of "sex perversion" [...] and supplement community historiographies, which recognize the significance of gay historical figures but have not always possessed resources to create visual depictions of them' (Erhart 2016: 273).

Erhart's second major grouping of LGBTQ biopics centres on less-heroic historical figures, emphasizing the 'warts and all' mode of contemporary biopics (Bingham 2010: 17). Examples include Swoon (Kalin, 1992), about child murderers Leopold and Loeb, I Shot Andy Warhol (Harron, 1995), about attempted assassin Valerie Solanas, Monster (Jenkins, 2003), about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and J. Edgar, notorious F.B.I. head. Erhart finds that in 'embodying links between criminality, sexuality and violence, the subjects of such films present fundamental challenges to the conventional image of community worthiness' (Erhart 2016: 274). Nevertheless, the films' often dynamic aesthetics and complex politics contribute, like similar (non-LGBTQ) 'anti-biopics', to 'demonstrate an ironic attitude toward a more traditional Hollywood notion of which lives deserve our attention' (Bingham 2010: 18; Lupo and Anderson 2008: 110).

I contend that Milk and Pedro fit in Erhart's more traditional category of LGBTQ biopics, the definition of which dovetails with Bingham's articulation of the 'minority appropriation' mode. In use of both formal conventions (such as flashbacks and montages) and structural tropes (telescoping of life; supporting characters serving to illuminate aspects of the protagonist's identity) common to the classical, celebratory biopic genre, Milk and Pedro do not necessarily innovate. Indeed, they share a tragic inevitability that is common across the biopic spectrum. However, the filmmakers catalyse their protagonists' ability to tell stories that work to transcend the limitations of the tragic arc: the story of Milk's life and death takes the form of a message of hope (tied to the coming-out story multiplied across the nation), whereas Zamora's life and death functions as a call to action (mirrored in the stories told to and by him). Ultimately, while both Milk and Pedro share a tendency to document and valorize their protagonists through a tragic lens, the films' emphasis on their respective abilities to parlay their stories into meaningful social and political change grants each greater agency.

While Harvey Milk's life story had been the subject of a bestselling book, The Mayor of Castro Street (Shilts 1982), and an Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein, 1984), the narrative treatment of Milk's life took several decades to come to filmic fruition. (2) By 2008, however, the rise in more nuanced representations of queer individuals in the media (including the praise for and debates over the Oscar-nominated queer romance, Brokeback Mountain [Lee, 2005]) as well as the passing of California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage and simultaneous presidential election of a 'hope'-oriented Barack Obama several weeks before its release made Milk more timely than controversial (Benshoff 2009; Rich 2013; Erhart 2016).

Milk's approach follows that of many other contemporary biopics in focusing only on a portion of its protagonist's life (Anderson and Lupo 2002: 92). Milk features less than ten years, beginning with his 40th birthday and political and geographic conversion to the Castro neighbourhood of San Francisco in the early 1970s. The film telescopes Milk's burgeoning gay-centred political advocacy and numerous (mostly losing) runs for city office as well as his successful campaigns against Coors beer and an anti-gay ordinance in California.

As mentioned in the introduction, Milk narrates the film via the recording of his will, cementing his storytelling bona fides by foretelling his own murder. This bid for prescience is preceded by Milk recalling how he modulated his introductions to different audiences over clips of different speeches. He notes that his 'signature' introduction--'I'm Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you'--was altered if he was addressing 'a slightly hostile or mostly straight audience'. The joke--'I know I'm not what you were expecting, but I left my high heels at home'--was meant to ease any potential discomfort at speeches but works the same way for any possible tension among the film's audience. Furthermore, by demonstrating his ability to adapt his life--and story--to his audience, Milk highlights both his nimble political skills as well as the centrality of using his personal story, framed in particular ways, to advance his social agenda.

The film dramatizes how Milk devised these strategies of self-presentation (and canny reinvention) throughout his multiple campaigns for public office. Spurred to run for city supervisor after cops roughed up a group of gay men, he failed to win the support of local wealthy gay business leaders (who chided Harvey for his hippie appearance and chose to support straight, gay-friendly candidates for office) and changed his appearance, cutting his hair and trading his scruffy appearance and tight jeans for a trim haircut and a brown suit. This transformation, a return of sorts to the conservative, ostensibly closeted Milk we see meet boyfriend Scott in New York before the pair move to San Francisco, suggests a compromise to his ideals of self-acceptance but also underscores his political pragmatism, much as an earlier effort with Coors wins him allies within the union movement, if no immediate gains for the gay rights cause. A third run pits him against a gay-friendly Democrat, who, after a debate wherein Milk makes the gruesome attacks against gays in the Castro the central argument for his candidacy, advises him to alter his pitch to be more positive, setting up Harvey for the narrative to which the film pins his legacy: 'You gotta give 'em hope'.

While Milk eventually loses this race, he is given an opportunity to deploy this new message of positivity after anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant celebrates the repeal of a Florida gay rights ordinance. Milk addresses a crowd gathered to protest the repeal, vowing to fight Bryant and her categorization of gays as sick and predatory but ends with a rousing offer of community and hope to those younger people who are hearing Bryant and her ilk's message. This triumphant moment extends to a montage of several similar speeches that rely on the theme of hope tailored to different audiences. A few scenes later, Milk is elected. The film credits his eventual success to fine-tuning his narrative and his delivery, underlining storytelling as a mode of political engagement.

While the main theme of the stories Milk tells throughout the film pivots off the concept of hope (which the overall film also expresses), at the core of the stories is a familiar but no less potent coming-out narrative. Indeed, the hope Milk is selling is needed because there are so few out role models from whom to draw this optimism. While Milk makes such a case explicit during one of the will recordings, noting that he came out late in life and lamenting the poor public fate of those who did, a key scene underlines how perilous--and genuinely radical--this act of telling one's story can be. As Milk works with union and gay activists to oppose a notorious state initiative that would bar gay men and women from working as teachers, he laments the planned strategy to defeat the bill: ads would emphasize the broader human rights angle in opposing the measure and not explicitly invoke homosexuality. Arguing that this approach is 'a coward's response to a dangerous threat', Milk rallies his mostly young crew and contends that they must come out to family members, friends and employers for the initiative to be defeated. 'People vote two to one for us if they know just one of us', he reasons, and the once-boisterous room becomes quiet as the group considers the weight of this revelation.

Milk's now-former boyfriend Scott challenges him on this edict, noting that Milk was in the closet when they lived in New York and how hypocritical this demand for openness is considering the real potential for people to lose their families and jobs should they come out. 'You want to be normal as bad as any of us, more than any of us', Scott says. Both Milk's demand and Scott's retort get at the core of the power--in both potential gains and losses--of the coming-out narrative. At the victory party for the proposition's defeat, a triumphant Milk takes the stage to emphasize how telling one's story by coming out can help 'destroy the myths once and for all, shatter them'. Coming out, for Harvey Milk and for Milk, has both personal and political power that lies within the story and the storyteller. However, while Milk promotes the coming-out narrative for its liberatory and social value, Milk the film pointedly elides almost all of Milk's pre-San Francisco life--the clear majority of which was in the closet, including his Jewish identity, stint in the Navy, and corporate life in NYC (Erhart 2016: 278). Erhart argues that 'to show these aspects would confuse viewers and would be, in narrative terms, uneconomical' (2016: 278). What the filmmakers gain in thematic concentration--an attribute and critique of the biopic genre from its earliest days--means the loss of attention paid to other aspects of Milk's life story, features of which are common to biopics generally and LGBT biopics specifically. (3)

Ultimately, Milk's promotion of coming out as a political act and overall message of hope serves to frame Milk as both courageous and prescient. While these structures work to further legitimize him as a biopic subject, it is his tragic death that cements it as hagiography. Christopher Pullen argues that the film situates Harvey Milk as a '"victim hero", and the gay community as founded on and brought together through tragedy' (Pullen 2011: 402). Pullen argues the use of opera and operatic music as story and sound motifs that function as both portent and sorrowful catharsis. Noting that opera music flares on the soundtrack at key moments related to death, most significantly when Milk is being shot, he turns and faces out the window towards the opera house and the banner advertising Tosca as music from the production plays over the soundtrack. Pullen argues that 'these iconic, psychological, diminutive and [...] arcane tragic signifiers, of youth cut short and inherent mental disturbance leading to suicide, are embedded in the film, related to opera music and its iconography, coded as intensity and inevitability' (Pullen 2011: 402) For Pullen, the links between opera, tragedy 'and its stereotypical relationship to gay male identity' align Milk with popular dramatic queer films like Philadelphia (Demme, 1996) and, in its emphasis on tragedy and loss, to Brokeback Mountain and A Single Man (Ford, 2009) (Pullen 2011: 402).

Pullen notes that this over-emphasis on Milk's death serving as a singular tragedy igniting (or perhaps, more fitting, giving hope to) a wider civic queer movement contrasts with The Times of Harvey Milk's portrait of the collective social and political action of a varied gay community of which Harvey Milk was a key feature. Milk concludes with a candlelight march of thousands through the streets of the city as Milk's will recording explicitly lays out the meaning of his death ('If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door') and his hopes for the future of the movement ('[the movement] is not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power [...] [it is] about the "us's" out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors. [...] Without hope, the us's give up'). The documentary concludes a year later, recounting Dan White's trial and his conviction for manslaughter over murder for the deaths of Milk and Moscone and the ensuing 'White Nights' riots over White's light sentencing, placing Milk's death in a wider social and historical context. While Milk does feature a community of activists who work together, opening a space that Matt Connolly argues 'allows the audience to see how Milk inspired a generation to view their sexuality as a tool for organizing and asserting political power', it is not at the same depth as the documentary and is more familial (with Milk serving as a demanding yet permissive father) than collective (Connolly 2009). Such an emphasis makes generic sense given the biopic's stressing of exceptional singularity over the documentary's wider canvas; the latter of course relies on the community of survivors to tell the story of Harvey Milk and the movement, whereas the biopic of Milk places its eponymous hero at its centre--and, as I have argued, as its most prominent storyteller.

Although produced in loose parallel with Milk and premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in September of 2008 (almost two months before Milk made its US debut), Pedro is a biopic situated very much in Milk's shadow; it was its telecast on MTV in April 2009 that marked its widest audience. But while both films feature a charismatic yet tragic gay protagonist intent on framing his story for social impact, the differences in scope and structure--owing to each subject and budget--mark clear distinctions between the biopics. These divergences in Pedro include: the more prominent role of the media in framing life stories and in minority representations, particularly in reality television; a more substantial emphasis on family and culture as opposed to an integrated gay community; and the way Pedro's death is positioned as a call to action more so than the beacon of hope presented by Milk.

Like Milk, Pedro telescopes its protagonist's life. The film is primarily set over the course of Zamora's last year before his death from AIDS at 22; however, unlike Milk, Pedro uses extensive flashbacks to key moments across his past, including the separation from much of his family in the move to Miami, the death of his mother from cancer at seven, his young adult sexual experiences and coming out, and, most prominently, his time on The Real World. These decisions by Black promote a more intimate scope in Pedro than Milk--understandable given the differences in historical context and accomplishments between the two men (as well as the films' clear variances in budget and production scale)--but also the audience's ostensible intimacy with Zamora as a reality television performer on The Real World. That the film is titled Pedro--the name he used on the show--and not Zamora like Milk underscores this presumed familiarity and promise of an intimate portrait.

Pedro's use of flashbacks as psychological turning points is a conventional--and effective--biopic trope, one that is deployed alongside a more novel use of 'talking head' interviews. At various points in the film, Pedro's (Alex Loynaz) Real World housemate Judd (Hale Appleman), sister Mily (Justina Machado) and partner Sean (DaJuan Johnson) all speak directly to the camera, expressing their own takes on events and offering perspectives on Zamora's life.

While the use of 'talking head' interviews is used extensively in documentary films, it has been used irregularly in contemporary biopics such as Reds (Beatty, 1980) and Prefontaine (James, 1998); in the former, actual historical figures reflect on the protagonist John Reed, while in the latter, actors portraying friends of the titular runner discuss events in his life. In both cases and in Pedro, the interviews strengthen claims to authenticity by borrowing from the documentary form even as they disrupt the narrative world of the films; however, the interviews in Pedro more prominently recall the interviews used extensively in The Real World (termed 'confessionals') and other reality texts. As in the reality shows themselves, these interviews--presented as 'unfiltered' intimate asides--serve a similar function to the voice-over narration in Milk in that they provide psychological explanation and suture disparate time frames, locations and help move the narrative along.

Despite Zamora's lack of direct address in Pedro, his agency as a storyteller is prominent in the film. Through diegetic narration and point of view Milk positions Harvey Milk as the dominant voice in the telling of his life's story. In contrast, Zamora's ability to tell his story to multiple audiences is his vocation. Zamora comes to his position as an educator through an understanding of a lack of role models for safer sex (in a way mirroring Milk's situation vis-a-vis the lack of out gay figures), and before appearing on The Real World he was featured in several national newspapers and on talk shows, in addition to his appearance in front of Congress to advocate for better HIV and AIDS education. Such experiences appear to have shaped his decision to apply for The Real World, whose producers were looking for an HIV-positive person to join the next season (Jones 1997).

Pedro is at its most formally interesting when it depicts the performative nature of the series and how it intersected with Zamora's well-honed self-presentation skills. After earning an interview due to his submission video (where a friend tells a nervous Zamora to treat the self-introduction as if it were a lecture), he charms the producers by confidently answering their questions, particularly those dealing with how he would handle housemates who may be uncomfortable with his HIV status. Impressed with his succinct and self-actualized responses, one producer asks whether he's 'always this "on message"'? Before rattling off a list of hobbies, Zamora replies that 'there's no escaping it'. Zamora, who goes by 'Peter' with his friends and in his submission video, does not push back when the producers propose he use 'Pedro' on the show, even though it is used primarily by his family, suggesting that the more significant conflict with his identity is not public but familial--a theme that grows more resonant throughout the film. For Zamora, this is an easy compromise as a means to access the power of The Real World cameras to frame his story. As Erika Suderburg argues, The Real World had already established the casting of gay housemates in its two previous editions, selecting people who 'were "out", politicized, vocal and articulate about their presence as "representatives" of young queerness in the 1990s' (Suderburg 1997: 53). In contrast to the prior queer housemates, Suderburg contends that 'Pedro's agenda is a minefield' (Suderburg 1997: 57). Furthermore, in The Real World Pedro deftly navigates both his housemates' and MTV's attempts to stereotype him as an AIDS victim and a gay man (Suderburg 1997: 58).

In a similar fashion, the biopic Pedro depicts Zamora's tenure on The Real World to underscore the constructed nature of the series and to document his ability to harness it to disseminate his story. From Zamora's arrival, cameras are omnipresent, and throughout his introduction to the rest of the housemates we see and hear the producer instruct the camera crew on preferred angles and direct housemates when to enter the house for maximum coverage. As the housemates get to know each other, Zamora struggles to find a good time to disclose his HIV status, complaining to a friend on the phone that since 'everybody is so "on"' it may be more difficult than anticipated. This comment is likely a reference to another housemate, Puck (Matt Barr), a bike messenger, whose brash, grandstanding personality clashes with Zamora's affably didactic demeanour throughout the series. Zamora decides to announce his status by inviting Judd to look at his scrapbook of press clippings, but noting that they should first find the cameras. In an interview segment, Judd argues that the cameras gave everyone an expectation 'to perform', which is followed by a heated conversation between conservative housemate Rachel (Karolin Luna) and Zamora. As Rachel outlines why she is uncomfortable with Zamora's status and how he revealed it to the house, Zamora stops her mid-sentence so that the camera can reload a new tape and they can resume their conversation. A scene shortly thereafter shows Zamora, Judd and housemate Pam (Jenn Liu) discussing an article on HIV myths, with Zamora in passionate educator mode. Judd tells him to relax as 'the cameras are gone'. By stressing Zamora's sometimes pedantic intensity and his wilful cooperation with the mediated construction of The Real World, Pedro demonstrates his commitment to his role as advocate and educator; this purposeful approach underlines Zamora's media savviness and consequently strengthens his exceptionality, crucial for any heroic biopic subject.

Zamora's 'on message' consistency makes him a compelling reality show performer but also edges him into conflict with the other dominant personality in the house, Puck. Puck's lack of propriety and attention-seeking behaviour (such as burping at the dinner table and wearing a provocative t-shirt featuring guns in the shape of a swastika) lead to friction that is a staple of reality television--handily fulfilling the show's open credit promise 'to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real'. As per Zamora, Puck's behaviour has caused him to retreat from the house and he confronts the producers in a confessional interview arguing that 'Puck's story is not why I am here and I don't want to be a part of it'. The 'it' refers to the 'artificial world' Zamora charges the show has created and sets up an ultimatum: either he or Puck goes. In one of the series most-discussed episodes, the housemates vote Puck out of the house. While this memorable sequence would have likely been the highlight of the season, it was eclipsed by other events. Zamora's on-screen romance with Sean, a fellow AIDS educator, took centre-stage, culminating in a commitment ceremony. Less celebratory was Zamora's increasing ill-health, which he first kept from the producers (with the help of housemates), and in Pedro culminates in an off-screen agreement with the producers to 'keep the cameras rolling [...] no matter how bad it gets. All the way to the end'. Like Milk, Zamora understands his own mortality and his potential legacy.

While much of that legacy is due to his appearance on The Real World, it is important to note that the section of Pedro that deals primarily with The Real World makes up approximately a third of the biopic--though it remains a key mediator of Zamora's legacy. The bulk of Pedro is less concerned about recreating events ostensibly familiar to audiences (though it does offer a more nuanced take on them); instead the film offers a more cultural and familial context to Zamora's life, experiences that give psychological reasoning to his sexual identity, activity and advocacy, all filtered through his relationship with family. In contrast to Milk, wherein Harvey Milk's most dominant struggle is against the homophobia of wider society, the main source of dramatic tension is not public but within the family as they struggle with accepting Zamora's sexuality, HIV status and, most pointedly, his relationship with Sean. The film documents Zamora's dual coming-out narratives--first as gay and then as HIV positive--wherein the family (represented mainly by his sister, Mily, and his father) is tolerant but not fully accepting. However, the family is still resistant to Sean, even after filming ends on The Real World and the couple returns to Miami. As Zamora's health declines, his family pushes away Sean, arguing that he 'should be with his family; his real family'. Zamora, now unable to speak due to an AIDS-related disease, cannot advocate for Sean's role in his life. Instead, Sean brings over a tape of their commitment ceremony as aired on The Real World. It is this depiction of their relationship that is shown to ultimately soften Zamora's family's stance towards Sean. The power of this representation for his immediate family is extrapolated to the viewing audience of The Real World; as President Bill Clinton later asserted, 'all people who watched the show could now say that they "knew" someone who had lived with AIDS' (Winick 2000: 160). That the mediated representation of Zamora and Sean's commitment ceremony is more transformative for Zamora's family than the reality of their relationship is perhaps a touch too self-aggrandizing on the part of MTV (which co-produced the movie) but does serve to underscore a central charge against the biopic as history: that the representation has the potential to supersede the historical record.

A more sentimental reading of the loss of Pedro's voice (which Pullen argues '[intensifies] our memories of his eloquence as an intelligent and charismatic orator') is that it not only engenders family understanding but serves as an invitation to action by his family and friends (Pullen 2011: 406). His sister, Mily, delivers a letter to President Clinton, who calls Pedro and grants the family's request to allow the rest of Zamora's family in Cuba to visit Miami before he dies. After his death, Sean and Mily continue his AIDS advocacy, including launching a foundation in his name, and Judd and Pam take over his educational duties; Judd also re-tells Zamora's story through an acclaimed graphic novel, Pedro and Me (Judd Winick, 2000), in which he credits Zamora with helping Judd 'find [his] way as a storyteller' (Winick 2000: 181). These invitational gestures to continue the dialogue and education are extended to the audience as a call to action, one that is prefaced by a video introduction to the DVD version of the film where Clinton speaks to Pedro's abilities to 'inspire and empower us all and to his compassion and fearlessness' (Clinton 2009). Though Black positions both Milk and Pedro as able storytellers whose lives are meant to mean something beyond their tragic deaths, Milk frames his legacy as one of hope, whereas Pedro's functions more as a model of action.

Despite their deaths, the protagonists of Milk and Pedro triumph and endure as role models, handily fulfilling the minority appropriation biopic model outlined by Bingham (2010: 18, 380). However, this appropriation of the form and genre previously used to invalidate or erase LGBTQ lives is not without its critics, as Bingham outlines in his chapter on the minority appropriation biopic, focusing on the production and reception of Malcolm X (Lee, 1992), where many critics of that film felt that the radical reality of Malcolm X and his complex history were being assimilated into a relatively benign Hollywood myth of the biopic, with any revolutionary potential subsumed into spectacle and uplift (Bingham 2010: 170). Similarly, critics of Milk argued that the conventionality of the genre forestalled a more nuanced portrait of Milk's politics; Michael Bronski charged that the film 'consistently plays to the lowest common sentimental denominator' (Bronski 2009: 72). Alonso Duralde charged that 'screenwriter Dustin Lance Black [...] apparently clicked the "Biopic" button in his Final Draft software and then just filled in the names' (Duralde 2008). Yet Bingham argues that the film's conformity is a virtue since the 'desire to make a minority subject of the past live for film audiences in the present is one of the chief aim of the appropriation biopic' (Bingham 2010: 381). Relatedly, A.O. Scott argued that 'it is therefore entirely fitting that Milk should cleave to the aesthetics of popular filmmaking. Its emotions are accessible, its message clear and powerful, its political implications overt and unabashed' (Scott cited in Connolly 2009).

Other reactions to the film demonstrate how the film navigated both contemporaneous history (as in Proposition 8) and the filmic legacies of NQC. B. Ruby Rich (2013), the originator of the term NQC, explores her evolving reaction to the film, beginning with set visits that brimmed with nostalgic verisimilitude, followed by a deflating premiere screening (marking the film as a 'noble project for which [she] was not the intended audience'), to a greater appreciation for the film after the 2008 election (Rich 2013: 249). For Rich, 'the election had performed a stark reediting. The conservative formula of its biopic genre was instantly reframed into a commentary on our time' (Rich 2013: 252). Furthermore, while Milk 'may not have the sass and swagger of the early NQC [...] it had its heart in the right place: not gay pride, but something bigger. Delirium, for instance. And grief and rage and memory' (Rich 2013: 257). Benshoff coins the term 'neo-queer cinema' to tag Milk and other LGBTQ-themed films released by quasi-independent major studios (like The Hours [Daldry, 2002] and Brokeback Mountain); this relationship allows the films greater prestige and promotion than other, more independent LGBTQ fare (Benshoff 2009). 'Neo-queer' also refers to the films themselves, which Benshoff marks as different from the NQC forerunners for the production contexts noted above as well as 'less "in-your-face" rhetoric' (Benshoff 2000). 'Nonetheless ['neo-queer' films are] queer in style and content via their insistence on historicizing their subjects' sexualities, a primary goal of queer theory, NQC and other forms of queer artistic practice' (Benshoff 2009). Benshoff then praises Milk for its formal flourishes, which he ties to Milk's theatricality and storytelling prowess:

Van Sant also uses still photos, various film stocks and simulated home
movie footage [...] to underline his concern with the specific
discourses of various visual forms. Like much queer cinema (and
especially the work of Todd Haynes), Milk's visually mixed style
literally underlines the ways and means that cinematic and televisual
apparatuses can and do construct multiple histories of singular events.
Harvey too, like many countercultural leaders and queer filmmakers, was
acutely aware of the aesthetic nature of political discourse. As the
film shows, he was not opposed to staging press conferences or street
demonstrations as grand theatrical events, much like his beloved
operas. And while the film demonstrates that politics is theatrical, it
itself simultaneously attests to the political nature of art.
                                                       (Benshoff 2009)

The reactions of critics noted above demonstrate the potentiality and pitfalls of LGBTQ biopics as historiography, a process that can appropriate various features of the biopic, especially its legitimizing function, but also incorporate multiple modes of queer film practice.

As in distribution, Pedro looms smaller in reception to Milk. Only limited archived reviews exist; they tend to centre on the film's solid structure, affecting performances (Harvey) and hagiographic depiction of Zamora (Stasi). Pedro was nominated for the prestigious Humanitas Prize, and Black was nominated by the Writers Guild of America. Despite its arguably more complex deployment of storytelling-as-agency than in Milk, it is the legacy of his time on The Real World that remains Zamora's most prominent mediated representation. Twenty years after his death, Eric Ciasullo recalled the impact of Zamora's time on the series and the power of his mission to tell his story in a way to stress the 'connections between the personal, the educational, the cultural and the political' (Ciasullo 2014).

Like all historical texts, particularly biopics, Milk and Pedro are incomplete in their representations and risk dislocating complex contemporary issues for relatively passive historical uplift. Matt Connolly warns, 'if you frame queerness as a public struggle fought on the streets or as a shame-infused secret to be whispered in the shadows, you never have to deal with the realities of modern queer existence' (Connolly 2009). While film and television representations of contemporary LGBTQ lives (fictional and biographical) have increased in the 2000s, Benshoff and Griffin caution that 'all aspects of sexual diversity are not granted the same amount of attention', noting the continued imbalanced focus on white, cisgender and male protagonists (Benshoff and Griffin 2006: 288). Writer Jon Robin Baitz and director Roland Emmerich (both openly gay) faced similar criticism after the release of Stonewall (2015), a fictionalized retelling of the pivotal 1969 gay rights riot. The film features a white, straight-acting male as its hero and was derided for being 'whitewashed propaganda' (Carey 2015). The charge is particularly egregious as the film displaces well-known LGBTQ people of colour to emphasize the fictional story of the white male protagonist. Clearly, more diverse stories and storytellers are needed across LGBTQ biopics and docudramas, as is more scrutiny, as they balance the demands of historiography and art.


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Lupo, J. (2017), 'Blending in and standing out: Storytelling and genre in the LGBT biopics Milk and Pedro', Queer Studies in Media & Popular Culture, 2: 2, pp. 227-41, doi: 10.1386/qsmpc.2.2.227_1


Jonathan Lupo is an associate professor of communication in the English Department at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He earned an MA in film studies from Emory University and a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His research on biopics (with Carolyn Anderson) was published by the Journal of Popular Film and Television and by the British Film Institute. His research on film canons was published by The Journal of American Culture. He teaches classes on film, media literacy and gender in comedy.

Contact: Saint Anselm College, 100 Saint Anselm Drive #1788, Manchester, NH 03102, USA.


Jonathan Lupo has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was submitted to Intellect Ltd.


SaintAnselm College

(1.) Following Milk and Pedro, Black wrote the screenplay for J. Edgar (Eastwood, 2011), a film that extends both the themes and the structures of the earlier films, with an emphasis on Hoover as a storyteller. However, J. Edgar emphasizes the utter failure of Hoover's storytelling by unpacking his numerous lies and exaggerations and cornering him as the ultimate unreliable narrator. Unlike Milk's message of hope and Pedro's model of action, J. Edgar is more like a grave warning - an argument against the closet and the homophobia that undergirds it - as well as a caution about the corrosive power of that denial. These similarities and differences among the films, especially in the diverging formal approach taken by director Eastwood vis-a-vis Van Sant and Oceano, will be the subject of a future article.

(2.) See Hiscock(2009) for a fifteen-year timeline of the making of Milk, including several script versions by other authors before Black's script was accepted in 2008. Rich (2013) also offers a narrative of events leading up to and including the filming and reception of Milk.

(3.) Erhart contends that Milk displaces both the classical biopic convention of romantic partnershipand contemporary LGBTQ biopics' centralizing of same-sex desire and intimacy. What fills that gap is 'the hustle and bustle of the world of politics'(Erhart 2016: 281). In other words, one story not told by Milk is a love story. Though Milk has two prominent boyfriends in the film, Erhart finds that 'politics literally displaces romance' (Erhart 2016: 281, original emphasis). However, the focus on politics also demonstrates Milk's new biopic status, beginning'where earlier biopics leave off by depicting the transformation of its gay characters into organized, successful, powerful political actors'(Erhart 2016: 281).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A496450967