The Times of Harvey Milk
Dir: Robert Epstein
Cert: 15 • US: 83 min • Verve Pictures • DVD
The Times of Harvey Milk opens at the end of the story with the announcement that the San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, and supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot and killed. Then, in a recording made a year before his death, with the instruction that it be played only in the event of his assassination, Milk is heard to say, “I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy.” This powerful statement is the iron rod that supports this equally powerful documentary, which for more than a quarter of a century has been the defining statement on Milk’s career as “the mayor of Castro Street”.
The Times of Harvey Milk charts the rise of Harvey Milk from owner of a camera shop to grass-roots politician through a combination of film footage and the recollections of his allies. Like so many Americans, Milk was radicalised by the war in Vietnam. He moved from New York to San Francisco in the early 1970s, and first ran for a position as supervisor on the city’s council in 1973. What The Times of Harvey Milk shows so persuasively is the development of a man who became a representative politician and stood for the building of bridges between all minorities. He was what so many politicians claim to be.
Milk ran for supervisor three times and failed. When George Moscone was elected as Mayor one of the things to change was the way that supervisors were elected. In 1977 votes were cast by district and not citywide. Milk was elected to a board of supervisors that more than thirty years later still looks progressive and diverse.
The defining political event of Milk’s career was the fight against Proposition 6, which proposed that gay teachers, and any school official publicly supporting gay rights, could be fired. The footage of Milk reveals a deft politician who is both funny and practical, rather unlike his opponents, the Christian Right crusaders Anita Bryant and John Briggs. In debating Briggs, who worried that homosexuals were out to recruit the nation’s children because they themselves cannot reproduce, Milk wondered why, as a product of heterosexual parents and a “fiercely heterosexual society”, were he not heterosexual also. He added, “if it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you’d sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around”. There is a lot of power in this combination of seriousness and humour to deflate these windbags.
The Times of Harvey Milk is also about the failure of the law, and the redundancy of the law when it fails. On the day that Milk was shot by fellow supervisor Dan White there was a candlelight vigil, a march that ran down Market Street in the Castro and counted 30,000 people. The editing and pacing is skilfully handled and one would have to have a heart of stone not to feel a palpable sense of tragedy, of loss. “It was one of the most eloquent expressions of a community’s response to violence I have ever seen,” recalled Sally M. Gearhart, a writer who worked on the Milk campaign. Then there followed the White trial decision and violence.
The decision in the trial, a result of the infamous “twinkie defense”, which blamed White’s actions on his junk food intake, led to riots. Although there are dissenting voices in the documentary, the impact of the events is so structured as to get the audience right behind the violent reaction to a decision that disregarded sense. White was indicted for manslaughter and spent six years in jail. What the DVD extras show is that White took his own life when he was released in 1985.
The Gus Van Sant film Milk (2008) owes much to this documentary. It opens the story with the announcement of Milk’s death and hinges the narrative on the recording that Milk instructed was only to be played in the event of his assassination. The Times of Harvey Milk is an honourable and fitting tribute; and not just to the man, but the very idea of him and what he stood for. It is about his part in a movement, a candidacy. If every movement needs a martyr to remind it of its ideals, and what it can be, such a figure is to be found in Harvey Milk.