#222) The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by Rob Epstein
Class of 2012
Not so much a trailer as it is a snippet from the film, featuring “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”.**
The Plot: Utilizing archival footage, local news coverage, and present day interviews with those who knew the man, “The Times of Harvey Milk” chronicles San Francisco’s “Mayor of Castro Street” and California’s first openly gay elected official. Among the topics covered are Milk’s landmark 1977 election to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, his stance against the 1978 Briggs Initiative (which would have prevented openly gay Californians from teaching), his tragic murder – alongside San Francisco Mayor George Moscone – by co-supervisor Dan White, and the impact his death had on California and the LGBT community. Narrated by Harvey Fierstein in what may be his least vocally intrusive performance.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “moving and incisive portrait” as well as “a historical document of a grassroots movement gaining political power through democratic means.”
But Does It Really?: “The Times of Harvey Milk” is being preserved for its standing as a compelling, engaging documentary, and as a time capsule of a specific pivotal moment in American history. Rob Epstein has solidified his place as a pioneering documentarian of gay Americans, and one of his films should be on the list. This film’s cultural significance is already very strong, and I suspect will just keep getting stronger.
Everybody Gets One: Everyone involved in this film, primarily director Rob Epstein (more on him in the “Legacy” section), and narrator Harvey Fierstein (though of his other films, I’m gonna guess the next entry will be… “Independence Day”?)
Seriously, Oscars?: At long last, I have covered an Oscar winning documentary. “The Times of Harvey Milk” is one of only five Best Documentary Oscar winners to make the Registry. Finally, Oscars!
- For weeks I’ve been erroneously calling this film “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk”, but I think it’s important to examine the crucial omission of “Life”. This film isn’t a Harvey Milk biography, but rather a focus on the era in which Harvey Milk came to prominence. There’s virtually nothing about Milk’s life before San Francisco, and his longtime partner Scott Smith only gets a passing reference. This film is about the world Milk came into, and how he changed it. This film is about the man, but more importantly it’s about a moment and a movement.
- As previously stated, I don’t pick these films too far out in advance, but sometimes the timing is an unexpected bonus. Happy Pride Month, everyone!
- There’s a brief mention in the narration of Harvey Milk’s time “producing on Broadway”. Turns out he was an associate producer on the 1971 musical “Inner City”, and was an assistant to director Tom O’Horgan for a little thing called “Jesus Christ Superstar”.
- There’s a lot about Harvey Milk that separated him from other politicians. One of the things this film touches upon is his keen sense of what his district needed and how to get it done. You get a sense of someone tirelessly reaching as many people as he could, not only to help his district and its citizens, but also to help break down the stigma of homosexuality. He made sure you thought of Harvey Milk as a person first, with his orientation being secondary to his humanity.
- It’s great to see the likes of Annie Kronenberg and Tom Ammiano discuss their time with Harvey Milk, but there are a few noticeable absences, primarily Scott Smith and Cleve Jones. And it seems like teamsters union leader Allan Baird gets a lot of screen time. A bit lopsided, don’t ya think?
- As a resident of San Francisco, it’s great seeing what the city looked like 40 years ago. For starters, that Safeway is still there!
- “The reason for all this merriment and gaiety – if you’ll pardon the pun…” Fuck you, Channel 5 Reporter John Lester.
- Of course all-American white boy Dan White was frustrated on the Board of Supervisors. Between Milk, Ella Hill Hutch, Gordon Lau and Carol Ruth Silver, White was the Board’s “and Peggy”.
- Milk’s sense of humor also differentiates him from other politicians. No one in politics has a sense of humor anymore. It’s why the White House Correspondents Dinner is always such a downer.
- In another time or universe, Professor Sally Gearhart would be played by Olivia de Havilland. They have similar mannerisms and cadence. Side note: Gearhart taught at my alma mater SFSU. Go WeDon’tHaveASportsTeam!
- “The Times of Harvey Milk” was released in 1984, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. This documentary makes sure to point out that 1978 Ronald Reagan was publicly against the Briggs Initiative (and therefore presumably pro-gay rights), while 1984 Ronald Reagan was actively ignoring the thousands of Americans dying of AIDS during his presidency.
- I know it’s coming (the film begins with Dianne Feinstein’s announcement of the murders) but Milk & Moscone’s deaths and the immediate aftermath are just heartbreaking.
- Oh my God, Dan White was 32 when he shot Milk and Moscone. A straight, white 32-year-old man shot a gay peer and the mayor who opposed his return. Shit.
- This film’s credits list hundreds of contributors who helped finance it. Very telling of not only the importance these people knew this film would have, but also how taboo it still was in 1984 to produce any gay-related film.
- Rob Epstein is still going, with career highlights that include “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” (which got him another Oscar), and “The Celluloid Closet”.
- Many of the participants are still with us and still doing what they can for gay rights. Interestingly enough, teacher Tom Ammiano was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors a decade after being interviewed for this film.
- Dan White’s release from prison is mentioned in the film, and a year after the premiere, White committed suicide in his home in San Francisco. Epstein initially opposed adding this information to the movie’s epilogue, but eventually included it in some prints.
Further Viewing: If you want the Harvey Milk biopic, look no further than “Milk”. I saw it in 2008 at the Castro Theater, which was an experience unto itself.
**2019 Update: Rejoice, for “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester has just been added to the National Recording Registry!