The Times of Harvey Milk

Posted by J.D. On Wednesday, April 1, 2009 0 comments




Last year, Gus Van Sant premiered his biopic Milk about the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. That film went on to win both Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black) and Best Actor (Sean Penn). Fans of that film might be interested in the 1984 Academy Award winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

The Times of Harvey Milk is directed by Rob Epstein (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175) and narrated by Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy) whose distinctive voice is absolutely perfect for a documentary narration.

The film begins with footage of then San Francisco supervisor Diane Feinstein reporting that mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The poor woman looks absolutely shell shocked.

The Times of Harvey Milk then backpedals and discusses Milk's formative years and how he ended up in San Francisco. It is really interesting to learn how Milk worked his way up and ran repeatedly for office (and lost repeatedly) and his stuggle to gain support while being openly gay.

Some of the interviews illustrate what kind of perceptions Milk had to overcome to win office. An auto machinist named Jim Elliot talks of his union supporting Harvey Milk and how shocked he was when he discovered that Milk was gay.

...we're talking with the people and, uh, somebody said he's..he's gay. And I thought, "Holy Christ" how are we going to go back to our union and go back to where we work and tell guys we supported a fruit? You know? And I thought my God this is...what's labor coming to, you know? But then we found out that he got Coors beer out of all of the gay bars in San Francisco.


In the 1970's, unions were boycotting Coors beer because the Coors union went on strike and the brewery brought in replacement workers. For a union man, Milk's ability to aide the strike far outweighed his sexuality.

Later Elliot talked about how he came to like Milk.

Maybe I like Harvey because almost everything anytime he'd make a speech about anything I agreed with him so then I thought he was a great man because I agreed with what he talked about. But he...you could hear where he was coming from. He was coming from people positions. If it had to do with parks or it had to do with schools or it had to do with police protection anything that affected little people. He wasn't only for gay rights. He was for gay rights because that was a...that is a minority. But there's other minorities. There's handicapped people. There's senior citizens. And so there's more and more you start listening to him and getting involved with him because gee this is the kind of guy that is gonna talk about you.


Milk finally gained some success when then mayor of San Francisco George Moscone worked to have supervisor elections come from districts instead of cities. This allowed Milk to run, and win, a position on the board of supervisors from the Castro District in 1977.

Milk lobbied hard to defeat the Briggs Initiative (aka Proposition 6) which would ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools. The film explains the initiative and shows footage of Milk debating John Briggs. After Prop 6 was defeated 59% to 41%, Mayor Moscone and Milk celebrated with masses of people in the Castro District.

Unfortunately shortly thereafter, on November 10, 1978, Moscone and Milk were later connected forever when conservative San Francisco supervisor Dan White shot and killed them both in his City Hall rampage. This is covered about 53 minutes into the film.

The next twenty minutes to a half an hour covers the aftermath of Milk's murder. Seeing footage of the incredible mass of people marching in a candle light vigil...wow. People of all ages, races, sexes...all gathered to pay homage to Milk and Moscone. It's moving. It is especially sad to see the interviews with people, years after Milk's death, still visually upset about the events of that day in November of 1978.

Five months later, Dan White went on trial. Henry Der (who worked for the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action) and Tom Ammiano (one of the founders of the "No on 6" movement and currently a California state Assemblyman who recently crafted legislation to tax and regulate marijuana) discuss how many felt discouragement about getting justice as the jury process excluded gays and minorities. They weren't wrong. White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than first degree murder.

How the hell a man who entered City Hall by climbing through a window carrying a gun with a pocket full of extra bullets wasn't found guilty of premeditated murder is beyond me and it is a travesty. Apparently, others couldn't understand either because that's when the riots started.

The film, being set in the late 1970's and filmed and released in the early 1980's makes one hope that we have made progress. That we have come far from a time when someone would try to pass a Prop 6 banning homosexuals from working in public schools. But California is still in a fight over Prop 8 and after the release of Gus Van Sant's biopic of Harvey Milk, Brazilian actor Marco Ribeiro who has dubbed Sean Penn into Portuguese for various films refused to do so for Milk saying he didn't feel comfortable with the job. Ribeiro is a pastor in the conservative protestant God's Assembly Church and apparently is quoted on the church website claiming that families with same sex parents are a "distortion". So, the sad truth is that we still have a long way to go.

Unfortunately, it appears that the DVD is out of print (which is shocking considering how many people would be interested in it in the wake of Van Sant's Milk). You can rent it from Netflix. At the time of this writing, the film is available on Hulu.com as well.

If you enjoyed Milk, you should really check this documentary out and learn more information. If you've never seen Milk but are interested in learning about Harvey Milk, this is a highly informative film that definitely earned the Oscar it was awarded.

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