Milk was America’s first openly gay elected official. San Francisco mayor George Moscone had divided up the city into districts allowing for neighbors at large to vote for more personal representatives, people the people could feel would do more for them. Milk was elected as City Councilman for District 5, the Castro area where an ever growing gay population was finally winning recognition and civil rights. But with the election of a gay man to public office taking the issue of homosexuality out of hushed whispers and screaming it loud inside newspapers, conservatives began proposing legislation to deny and in some cases strip Americans of their rights. While there was reason to celebrate Milk’s victory and the victory of gay people across the nation, communities in America were passing laws against gay people. The Briggs Initiative was proposed as Prop 6, a law that would fire all gay teachers from public schools in California. The reasoning behind this was that gays who want to live openly could more easily prey upon children.
The Times of Harvey Milk, created out of masterfully used archival footage and straight-forward, honest talking heads, shows a segment of a debate between Milk and Senator Briggs, cultivator of the initiative. Milk correctly points out that most pedophiles are straight males, and Briggs, apparently unfamiliar with this info gathered by several sources including the FBI, offers his reasoning for removing gays, in his estimation 5% of the population: if gay teachers were fired, than there is a 5% less chance that children would be sexually assaulted. This reasoning gets a laugh out of Harvey. Why not go ahead and remove the 95% of heterosexual teachers to totally protect the children? The thinking is ludicrous, and Prop 6 lost by a wide margin.
I think the documentary genre is suffering now more than ever. Most would disagree, and statistics would show me up: documentaries show in major art-house theaters, and in rare but evident cases they play in multiplexes across the nation. They make money, and the genre is quite popular with young film buffs... to an extent. I think it’s still a specialized genre or form of filmmaking, but when I say that documentaries are suffering I’m talking about the art of the medium. This is why The Times of Harvey Milk works so well. Most modern documentaries feel, look and sound like reality shows. They have a central character, often the filmmaker, taking up a task and accomplishing it with a camera in tow. They usually provide narration explaining what’s happening on screen. Often the interview segments are cut together so that the subjects form complete but superficial thoughts through the splicing together of many sound bites, and wall-to-wall music is laid in to I guess keep the audience awake, and this music is poorly chosen and repetitive.
The Times of Harvey Milk is relatively quiet, eloquently photographed, and it features subjects with insights and personalities, and the filmmaker brings them out fully formed characters. And director / editor Epstein lets these people speak. Some of them break down when talking of Harvey’s death and San Francisco’s reaction. Epstein isn’t a cheat; he doesn’t go for extreme close-ups of their eyes or their hands fiddling with a handkerchief, or even worse out of focus shots of completely uninvolving objects around the room. He lets us watch their faces, see the rage and pain of Harvey’s death, the joys that accompanied his many accomplishments, and their fondness for the man. And again they all speak so brilliantly. A labor union leader who admits to before having known Harvey having somewhat anti-gay tendencies goes through a complete story arc. He reveals that because of his association with Harvey through their like-minded political views he is in favor of gay rights.
I hate to be personal beyond my opinion, but with documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk it seems impossible to disassociate myself from the story I have seen. I came out around the time I first saw the documentary in a college class... maybe a year earlier. It’s been so long I can’t remember now. When I was watching the film I couldn’t believe that this man, Harvey Milk, who accomplished a lot in a short career, has, since his death, been ignored by the mainstream media. He is certainly not forgotten; not in San Francisco where he was assassinated by a colleague: a statue has been erected of him. And indeed Milk’s name is not buried under the rubble of history. The problem is people have to search for him, unlike other leaders or influential persons who’ve charged their constituencies and extended themselves beyond them—history and the American population have exalted these men as exemplary, have named days after them, and their life’s work is taught in history books. But not Harvey Milk’s. Why?
The documentary is asking this question but in a larger context: if Milk were straight, would his murderer have served only 5 ½ years in prison? Would or should he have not instead been serving life?
Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were killed by Dan White, elected to office at the same time as Milk, and he is made the antagonist of the film. White is an interesting character: an idealist whose spirit is crushed by an ever-changing and degrading society, at least this was the defense’s position. White sunk into the City Hall with a loaded gun and extra bullets after resigning his position and then later wanting to recant his resignation. It is against the law for White to regain his job, and when Moscone supposedly told White he would not be reinstated White shot him, and then shot him again. He did the same to Harvey Milk: shot him to the ground, shot him three more times in the head, and then delivering one final execution shot at point blank range. It is clear who the murderer was, but the jury, supposedly a jury of straight white conservatives, a true group of Dan White’s peers, found him guilty of manslaughter, a crime that sentenced him to 8 years in prison. He was paroled after 5 ½.
The aftermath of Harvey’s death is quite spectacular: thousands took to the streets for a candlelight vigil beginning on Castro Street, where Harvey Milk lived, and it spread several blocks to City Hall. The aftermath of the jury verdict was quite different. A mob stormed City Hall, fought with police and set cars. One image I found striking was a protestor holding a sign, “Avenge Harvey Milk”. I was angry that Milk’s death meant nothing to those jurors and the millions they represent then and now in the United States, but despite it all I was depressed that this was the reaction. This violence was not what Harvey Milk campaigned for. A close friend of his says this in the documentary. And it depressed me because ultimately, at least in the short term, Harvey Milk had lost. His death inspired violence, and I was further discouraged to learn that Dan White committed suicide in 1985, a year after the documentary was released. When I first saw this film in class, many of the students felt that justice was finally served. Not I; the final chapter in this story was simply another death. What a waste.
I began this essay by referring to Harvey Milk in a more formal way by calling him “Milk”. When revising it, I noticed that half-way through I began calling him Harvey. I promise that this was unintentional. The film, I think, breaks down barriers between you or me and its subject. We get to know who Harvey Milk was, his kindnesses and tenacity, both terrific qualities in friends and public officials. We grow to love this guy through archival footage, and more importantly by how he had shaped the lives of everyone the filmmakers chose to speak with.
Why then is Harvey Milk still a relatively unknown figure? Why don’t we have a national Harvey Milk Day? Are there no politicians, gay or straight, with the balls to support such an honor? Would committing political suicide not be worth honoring the life of one man who died for making the world better for others?
Times of Harvey Milk, The (1984)
Director: Rob Epstein
Writers: Judith Coburn, Rob Epstein & Carter Wilson
Stars: Harvey Fierstein (Narrator)
Runtime: 90 minutes