The real news footage from 1978 is just as shocking every time you see it. Dianne Feinstein, then a San Francisco Supervisor, addresses the media in a press conference. Looking dazed and confused, she announces to the world that Mayor George Moscone and her colleague on the Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk, have just been shot and killed by a former supervisor, Dan White. The scene grabs one’s attention instantly, and when Milk’s story was dramatized in Milk (2008), director Gus Van Sant decided to use the actual footage rather than reshooting it with actors. This documentary was also the inspiration for the Oscar-winning Sean Penn movie.
Harvey Milk was born in New York in 1930. In the late ’60s, he moved to San Francisco where the gay culture around Castro Street was blossoming. After opening a camera shop, Milk increasingly came to feel that he was needed in politics. After running unsuccessfully for supervisor in his district three times, he tried one more time in 1975. By then his political education was complete. After winning the trust of organized labor, Milk was elected new member of the city’s Board of Supervisors. Part of a wave of new faces, Milk helped craft new civil rights legislation for the city, as well as bring down the infamous Briggs Initiative that would have banned gays from teaching in schools.
Three years after his election, he and Mayor Moscone came to fall victim to a fellow politician who suffered from mental issues the scope of which few understood before the murders.
Hard not to shed tears
We don’t learn that much about Harvey Milk’s background in this documentary. His personal life is actually better portrayed in Van Sant’s film. However, it is clear that director Rob Epstein, who had previously portrayed the gay movement in the 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, felt that it would be possible to catch the audience’s attention and generate strong feelings for Milk the man without diving deep into his personal life or background. He was right; the emotions and love for Milk is evident throughout all the interviews with fellow activists and friends who remember not only an outstanding soldier in the gay-rights struggle, but also a man who was smart, honest and a real friend. When the time comes near the end of the film to talk about the murder, it’s hard to not shed tears.
As the news footage shows, the love for Milk in the streets was tangible, and fellow gay-rights fighter Sally Miller Gearheart also reminds the audience that Moscone’s death was equally tragic. But emotions aside, Epstein focuses a lot on Milk’s work in city politics and he’s also clearly interested in Dan White and what made him snap; it’s eerie to watch White in old interviews and news footage. His murder trial and the now classic “Twinkie defense” becomes a bizarre epilogue to the film’s main story. Harvey Fierstein’s raspy voice draws us into these both exhilarating and tragic times; Mark Isham’s electronic score emphasizes the emotions.
One of the people interviewed is Jim Elliot, an auto machinist. He identifies himself as a typical macho working class kind of guy who used to read about the police roughing up patrons in gay bars and found nothing strange about that. Harvey Milk changed his mind. In him, Eliot saw a serious man who cared about the same issues as he did.
This is one of the points of Epstein’s film – to show how the gay movement can win over straight supporters. There’s always a need for a new Harvey Milk.
The Times of Harvey Milk 1984-U.S. 87 min. Color. Produced by Rob Epstein, Richard Schmiechen. Written and directed by Rob Epstein. Music: Mark Isham. Narrated by Harvey Fierstein.
Oscar: Best Documentary Feature.
Last word: “I had already started the project before Harvey was killed. I started to do a film about the Briggs Initiative — Proposition 6 — […] That’s what I was interested in, that fight, which was new then, and then it all became embodied in Harvey’s story. That was all part of it, which is why I ended up doing a film that was more about the times, and showing Harvey as a man of history – that particular history – than a biopic documentary.” (Epstein, IFC)