One of the very best films of the 1980s, The Times of Harvey Milk is an absolutely gripping documentary that works on every level. Informative and balanced, it's also funny and exciting, tragic yet ultimately hopeful. It's one of those tiny handful of movies that's undoubtedly changed many lives.
Harvey Milk sat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was California's first openly gay elected official. The movie opens on November 27, 1978 when Dianne Feinstein, then president of the city's council, made public the chilling news that Milk, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, had been brutally assassinated in their City Hall offices by disgraced former supervisor Dan White.
Through a perfectly integrated combination of local TV news clips, home movies, archival photos, elegant narration (written by Judith Coburn and Carter Wilson) and eight well-chosen interview subjects, the film traces the several years leading up to the tragedy. Milk was a camera shop owner and self-appointed Mayor of Castro Street. (The nickname has for years been the working title of a long-discussed, never-realized dramatic feature that at one time was to star Robin Williams as Milk.) After failing to win a seat on the council three times running, Milk's chance comes when the city changes its rules whereby candidates represent and are elected by districts -- local neighborhoods rather than the city at large. This results not only in Milk's election, but also the election of San Francisco's first Chinese-American, its first ERA feminist, and first black woman to the council. Lost among the sweeping changes is the election of Dan White, a clean-cut former fireman who took a huge pay cut to serve the city he loved.
Soon after his election, Milk becomes the leader in the fight against Proposition 6, a statewide initiative barring gays and lesbians from employment in California's public schools. Sponsored by State Senator John Briggs, the measure clearly exploited parents' fears that their children might be molested by gay teachers, this despite studies which overwhelmingly show that roughly 95% of child molesters are straight men. The measure seems certain to pass, though Milk's leadership against Proposition 6 thrust him into the national spotlight. His passionate but informed debates against the hateful, often irrational Briggs helped sway voters to defeat the measure in November 1978.
It was a enormous victory for discriminated minorities in general, and gays in particular, this at a time when an increasingly intolerant, Anita Bryant-led wave of anti-gay measures swept the country. But Milk's victory was short-lived. Dan White, who resigned after many frustrating months on the council, only made himself look even more foolish when he asked for his job back days later. When Mayor Moscone, with Milk's support, refused to reinstate him, White, once described as "the son almost any mother would be proud of," sneaked into City Hall through an unlocked window and shot them both in cold blood.
As its filmmakers point out, the name of the film is The Times of Harvey Milk, not The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. Though it has biographical aspects, the picture is really about a specific time, a specific place of ultimately positive, historical, tumultuous change -- change that came at a very heavy price.
The film is as much a portrait of San Francisco, the rise of its openly gay Castro Street district (even Boys in the Band is on the marquee of its landmark movie theater), but it is also a portrait of its diverse community. In one sense, the movie's universality hinges on one of its interview subjects, Jim Elliot, a middle-aged auto machinist and union rep once ambivalent to the violent police raids on the city's gay bars. But family man Elliot was impressed by Milk's support and activism for union causes and dedication to his marginalized neighbors -- not just gays but everyone. He was an advocate of senior citizen rights, rent control, and limitations on high-rise development. In many ways the film's issues haven't dated: one of Milk's achievements during his 11 months in office was to select voting machines most accessible to non-native English speakers, a stand that put him at odds with several of his Democratic colleagues.
Milk himself is shown as a witty, savvy politician. Once a wild-eyed hippie, Milk overhauled his image and learned how to work a room. Recognizing the value of good PR, he pressed for ordinances to control the city's dog shit problem, and during a local TV interview "accidentally" steps into a carefully positioned mound of dog feces for the benefit of the camera.
The film is impressively balanced. Friends acknowledge Milk's bad temper while his assassin is shown as a well-intentioned political neophyte who cracks under the weight of financial obligations and an unwillingness to compromise his moral values.
But the numbing violence of Milk and Moscone's murder for a long time shattered the hope and faith in the political and social enlightenment San Francisco's leaders seemed to predict on a national level.
Video & Audio
New Yorker's DVD appropriately is a 2-disc set with Criterion-level supplements. The film, shot mostly in 16mm, is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. The UCLA Film & Television Archive has restored and improved the film elements, including a 2.0 stereo mix of Mark Isham's moving score.
This surprisingly lavish special edition is divided between two discs. Disc One has the main feature plus an Audio Commentary Track with director Rob Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta, who had worked at Milk's camera store. The talk is a great primer on documentary filmmaking, from funding issues to editing to choosing and conducting interviews.
The more filmmaking-oriented discussion compliments the extras on Disc Two, which are mostly tributes to Milk's and Moscone's legacy. One glitch with the three pages of menu screens (at least on this reviewer's DVD player) is that once one moves forward one page on the main menu it's impossible to return to the first page without hitting stop and starting over.
Outtakes Featurette: Harvey Speaks Out is a series of brief clips from local news organizations, some with timecodes, of Milk discussing various issues. Academy Awards Presentation has Kathleen Turner (with very '80s hair and wearing a dress she'd probably rather forget) announcing that The Times of Harvey Milk had beat out such stiff feature documentary competition as Marlene and Streetwise, both fine films in their own right.
San Francisco Premiere: Castro Theatre is nearly eight minutes of brief speeches shot on ancient videotape at the November 1, 1984 premiere, which refers to the 1984 presidential race, gay Republicans, and which brings the interview subjects onstage for an ovation.
Ron Epstein and Tom Ammiano at the Directors Guild Los Angeles is an informative, 16-minute Q&A with the director and interview subject-turned member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. Dan White Update is mostly clips, though it does acknowledge White's eventual suicide soon after being released from prison. Alternate Ending mostly supports the filmmakers' final editing choices, though it does offer a touching surprise not included in the finished film.
First Anniversary: Mayor Dianne Feinstein is her short tribute on November 27, 1979 to both victims, with Feinstein still obviously shaken a year after those tragic events.
A large section of 25th Anniversary Events includes Dan White Case Revisited, a 45-minute examination of the seminal murder case, its infamous verdict and long-lasting impact on criminal justice. Harry Britt, Harvey's Appointed Successor is one of the best of these mostly talking head segments, an eloquent speech by Milk's reluctant replacement. Chris Moscone, George Moscone's Son and Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk's Nephew, also appear. A brief Candlelight Memorial marking the 25th anniversary is included, though it's again speeches with nary a candle in sight, and the extras wrap up with a Trailer and Filmmakers' Photo Gallery.
The Times of Harvey Milk is a film for everyone, not just gays and lesbians. At a time when voter apathy and national pessimism seem to be at an all-time high, The Times of Harvey Milk is moving evidence than one person can still make a profound, positive impact on American life.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.