The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)


Rob Epstein
Rob Epstein
Carter Wilson
Judith Coburn
Director of Photography: 
Frances Reid

Running time: 91 minutes

This film, which won the Best Documentary Oscar, has always been considered the No. 1 document that condenses the life of Harvey Milk and reminds viewers around the world of his importance in the gay rights struggle. In 2008, Milk, Gus van Sant’s fictional account of Milk’s life, with Sean Penn as the gay rights icon, heavily relied on information gleaned from this documentary by Rob Epstein, who would go on to direct an outstanding documentary on gay representation in the cinema, The Celluloid Closet.

Watching The Times of Harvey Milk, it is very clear that Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the screenplay for Van Sant’s film, was inspired not only by the content of the documentary but also by its structure; the two films have exactly the same book-ends – a tape recording of Milk’s will in case of assassination, the announcement by Dianne Feinstein that Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone had been assassinated, and Milk’s famous “Hope” speech. I was a little disappointed by Black’s stencilled duplication of these parts in his screenplay for Milk instead of integrating them into the fictional quilt in some other way.

In touching interviews with many of the people in Harvey Milk’s life – though, unfortunately, many of the important ones, such as Cleve Jones, Dianne Feinstein and Scott Smith, are not included – we get a sense of Milk’s achievements and his perseverance against great resistance, especially during the debacle of Proposition 6, in his first year in office, which would have allowed the Department of Education to fire teachers who self-identified as homosexual. Here, I learned about Sally Gearhart, a gay rights activist with an intimidating intelligence, who debated Jon Briggs in a very factual manner during their televised debates, and I believe her collaboration with Milk helped to defeat the proposed anti-gay initiative. Her words on the role of fear in the campaign explains the central issue very succinctly and are still relevant to anti-gay movements today.

The film provides a lot of detail about the political co-operation between Milk and Moscone, and we can easily understand how it came to be that Harvey Milk was given the opportunity to be elected city supervisor (redistricting provided the city with a much more representative combination of politicians than had ever previously been the case).

However, the film focuses too much on the role of Dan White, who had served on the board with Milk and, after certain disagreements between him, Milk and Moscone, killed the two men. The film spends its final 20 minutes going over perceived discrimination in the trial, the jury selection and the verdict. Of course, one has to keep in mind that the film was made five years after the death of Milk and shortly before White’s release from prison (he would commit suicide a year later, in 1985). But all the talk of White, his conservative values and the lenient sentence that he was given after killing two men in a very obviously premeditated act of violence should not have taken up so much time in this documentary.

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