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The makers of the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk approach their important subject with a keen sense of responsibility. Their intent is to eulogize Harvey Milk but also to keep alive his spirit and the gay rights movement to which he was dedicated. Director Robert Epstein had been a contributor to the groundbreaking docu Word Is Out; this excellent and moving show about changing political times won an Academy Award for best feature documentary.
The nation was rocked in late 1978 by news that San Francisco's Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been slain in their offices in City Hall. They were gunned down by Dan White, a Board member who had recklessly resigned two weeks before, and was irate that he was not going to be re-appointed. Using news film and video, many archive stills and new interviews, The Times of Harvey Milk allows us a close look at the very special activist and politician, emphasizing his enormous effect on progressive policies. After several unsuccessful runs for office, in 1977 Milk won his seat to the Board of Supervisors and proved highly effective at forming coalitions of traditionally opposed minority stakeholders in city politics -- ethnic groups, union workers, and the city's large but mostly unrepresented gay & lesbian population.
Milk enjoyed success on a number of civic issues and scored a triumph with the defeat of Proposition 6, which would have required the firing of any California teacher found to be "advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting" homosexual activity. Sponsored by fundamentalist fanatic John Briggs, the Initiative mirrored campaigns in other states promoted by gay rights opponent Anita Bryant, that suggested that homosexual teachers will molest America's children. Speaking in public and confronting Briggs on Television, Harvey Milk dismantled Briggs' fear-driven arguments with reasoned arguments, such as the fact that even the FBI had concluded that 95% of child molesters are heterosexual. Even with Governor Brown, ex-governor Reagan and President Carter denouncing it, Prop 6 was expected to pass. Harvey Milk was poised to become an important social leader; he'd be assassinated only twenty days later.
In stills and news clips Harvey Milk comes off as an immediately likeable and trustworthy person, always smiling and in good spirits. We're told that he could become petulant and angry when things were going badly, but it's difficult to imagine a character less susceptible to depression -- you smile just watching him. He's affectionate and demonstrative in public and seemingly always in control. Shots showing him walking while embracing his life partner are so joyous that only a diehard bigot would take offense. Milk's associates are men and women with bright personalities; in the film's interviews they talk about their activist friend in a way that convinces us that he was indeed special. Director Epstein doesn't strain to bring bend the audience to his point of view. He doesn't really have to -- the point of Harvey Milk's life is that an entire subset of Americans should be able to be free to be who they are, and anything short of acceptance is intolerable. Epstein's short list of interviewees makes the docu seem all the more personal. Three are women from entirely different backgrounds. An articulate teacher who witnessed Milk's body being removed from City Hall expresses what "the Mayor of Castro Street" meant to working gays who simply wanted to live without fearing for their livelihoods. Even more impressive is Jim Elliot, a straight union man who changed his mind about gays when he saw how effectively Harvey Milk represented citizens outside the gay community.
It's also fun to see the enthusiasm in the face of news reporter Jeannine Yeomans. When assigned to cover a political nobody campaigning out of a camera store in the Castro district, she expected to meet "a dud". TV news film coverage shows Milk canvassing neighborhoods as well as the unprecedented candlelight procession on the night of his death. We also see the riot that followed the later conviction of Dan White on a much-reduced charge. Director Epstein opens his show with the news video clip of Dianne Feinstein announcing the deaths to the media, with the Police Chief helping her to stay on her feet. The clip returns later in Epstein and co-editor Deborah Hoffman's expertly organized structuring of events, hammering home the awfulness of the slayings.
Despite the grimness of the subject matter -- the assassination of yet another potentially effective progressive politician -- The Times of Harvey Milk manages to leave us with a positive feeling. The gay rights movement is much bigger than Harvey Milk, but he made an enormous contribution and remains its most hopeful symbol -- one of his famous speeches was called The Hope Speech. One of Milk's loyal associates worried about his safety while riding in a parade, and he simply replied that such a thing would always be a possibility. Epstein uses part of a taped audio will that Harvey Milk left, "recorded in case of my assassination." Hearing the man's voice, it's almost as if he's saying, "well, I'm gone, but here's what I believe in."
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Times of Harvey Milk is a handsome restoration supervised by the UCLA Film & Television Archive's Ross Lipman, a specialist in work on independent and experimental films. In HD the flat-format color image seems brighter and more even than 35mm prints, especially in the scenes utilizing archived news video clips of variable quality. The stereo mix (the box says 2.0 surround, what does that mean?) enhances the music but takes pains not to stray too far from the film's mono origins.
Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten's extras make this Blu-ray (a standard DVD is available as well) the last word in Harvey Milk research. The audio commentary gathers the director, editor Hoffman and photographer David Nicoletta, who talks about climbing onto the marquee of the Castro movie theater to shoot film of a wild street party. Epstein recalls the odd irony of narrator Harvey Fierstein recording the film's narration in the closet of his New York apartment. Filmmaker Jon Else talks about the film's stature as a documentary, and a longer piece gathers director Epstein with other Milk friends, Gus Van Sant and James Franco, The film's aims are contrasted with Van Sant's 2008 feature docudrama Milk. Other extras include a selection of Milk voice tapes, research tapes, a set of unused docu snippets, film excerpts from the film's premiere and its win on the Oscars show, and the original trailer.
Of special note is a videotaped panel discussion of the Dan White trial by the prosecutors and defense, which puts the myth of the "Twinkie defense" in its proper perspective. A video of the 25th anniversary commemoration of the assassination is included as well. The insert booklet contains an essay by B. Ruby Rich, a tribute by Harvey Milk's nephew and restoration notes from Ross Lipman.
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T'was Ever Thus.