999 (134). The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Rob Epstein)

Screened February 22 2010 on New Yorker DVD on a flight from Prague to New York TSPDT rank #819 IMDb Wiki


Although this blog project covers only the films I haven't previously seen on the TSPDT 1000, when I saw that The Times of Harvey Milk was back on the list after last January's update, I just had to make room to write about it.  The film constitutes one of my formative film-related memories, though the memory had nothing to do with watching the film. It was March 1985; I was 10 years old. The Oscars were airing on TV – this was the first time I’d ever watched them. I don’t remember much about that year’s telecast other than that for the Costume Design award they brought an elephant onto the stage to accessorize the costume models from A Passage to India, and that an Asian guy had won Best Supporting Actor. I also remember that when they announced that the winner for Best Documentary was The Times of Harvey Milk, I started jumping up and down and ran to the living room to tell my parents. I’m not sure why I did this. Somehow I knew about The Times of Harvey Milk, and somehow it was a big deal to me that it had won.

It might have been that the film had gotten a lot of coverage on the local news in San Francisco, since it was about recent events that took place in the city. So I might have equated the film’s Oscar moment to something like when the 49ers won the Super Bowl just two months before. I wouldn’t actually see the film until two years later, during our family's free home trial of HBO, but by that point Harvey Milk was already firmly imprinted in my mental mosaic of San Francisco, thanks in part to the film’s Oscar being touted by the news as a win for the city. Even after watching the film at age 12, I have to confess that I still didn’t know what “gay” really meant, other than some vague sense of men being in love with men, a concept that both repulsed and fascinated my parents (I remember long conversations about Boy George), and that my classmates would tease each other with homophobic epithets with such frequency, and with such perverse relish, that “fag” or “gaylord” became inverted into terms of endearment almost devoid of any denotative meaning (see Deadwood's liberal application of the word "cocksucker" as a point of comparison).

I bring up these somewhat embarrassing recollections for several reasons. First, to show what significance The Times of Harvey Milk had for me as a Bay Area native, even without having seen the film. Second, to illustrate what a quasi-schizophrenic jumble of attitudes one can have towards sexuality growing up in an SF immigrant suburb, exposed to Asian homophobia, AIDS scares, (mostly) progressive teachers and media and a prestigious Oscar-winning documentary. In a sense, as a child I was the perfect audience for The Times of Harvey Milk, because the film is the cinematic equivalent of that teacher many of us might have had in grade school or junior high: the one with the uncommonly centered demeanor and reassuring smile, who seemed to have a handle on the world in a way we aspired to attain someday.

It's really ironic then, that one of the documentary's "subplots" involves the defeat of Proposition 6, which would have made it illegal for gays to teach in public schools. The defeat of Prop 6 was a milestone for gay rights in the U.S. and one of the highlights of Harvey Milk's brief political career.  In a way, the film confirms the fears of the conservatives who wanted to pass Prop 6, and who dreaded the influence that pro-gay pedagogues would have on their children.  But the profoundness of that influence is less in the gay lifestyle itself than in the rhetoric used to present it, something that The Times of Harvey Milk makes vividly clear.

On the one hand, the film's presentation of Milk invokes a classic American archetype: an entrepreneurial idealogue determined to make a difference in the world and for the better.  Through a series of biographical episodes and first-person anecdotes by historical witnesses, Harvey Milk is painted as an irrepressible optimist who runs for citywide office three times before finally succeeding, and who speaks with both fearlessness and flair on behalf of his constituents as well as his own principles. He's ultimately painted as a tragic Shakespearean figure, felled by a jealous, self-destructive right wing Iago with an almost too-symbolic name: Dan White. I remember seeing the film as a kid and my mind making a laserbeam connection with gays as another persecuted minority, another underdog to be championed against The Man.

On the other hand, the film doesn't cater to a sense of niche interest, but adopts an expansive embrace of a cross section of society. Take the film's casting, a veritable rainbow coalition of voices; it's the filmic embodiment of the State of the Union addresses that Bill Clinton mastered, touching on every demographic needed to score points across the board.  Among the many talking heads speaking fondly of Milk, there's an Asian man to signify approval from racial minorities (yeah, I guess all of them):


Then there's Tom Ammiano, future successor to Milk as City Supervisor.  He's an extension of Milk's off-the-cuff persona, flamboyant to the extent that he almost serves a quasi-minstrel role as comic relief.  But the levity serves as setup for two sequences: when Ammiano talks about the impact that Prop 6 would have on him, a schoolteacher at the time, potentially costing him his job; and a when he talks about the impact that Milk's death had on him, the perils of his life come into sharp relief.


There's also a TV reporter who prominently covered much of Milk's tenure for the news - here she gives her off-camera impressions of Milk. What this does is foster a sense of community and candor behind the professional veneer; that despite the roles we play in society, we ultimately relate to each other as humans. It's a small touch but it makes a difference and it really reveals the humanist spirit of the film.


But the real lynchpin as far as connecting the story to a "mainstream" audience is a labor leader who more or less admits his homophobia, but gradually and begrudgingly comes to respect Milk for his determined advocacy on behalf of the issues they shared.


It’s worth considering how much the film is a reflection, even an homage, of Milk’s personality. Like Milk, the film uses humor and empathy, along with a sense of the dramatic to shape and tone its message. Also note how well lit these interviews are, with a consciously consistent effect of sunniness, achieved even in the choice of wardrobe.  It's subtle, not overtly staged, but effectively warm and upbeat, seeing its subjects in the best possible light - was this the way Milk himself saw people?

In their commentary for the New Yorker DVD, director Rob Epstein and editor Deborah Hoffman discuss how they decided to retell the events of Harvey Milk and SF Mayor George Moscone's murders multiple times, first with raw footage, then with a chorus of voices alternately relating events and expressing emotional reactions. This is meant to mirror the natural waves of reaction experienced in times of trauma. This is another example of the canniness of the film, engaging the viewer on a deep level of empathy. It's so brilliant that I almost find it unsettling that all my buttons are getting pushed the right way.  It's almost disenfranchising; I mean, how can you not like this movie or disagree with its message?

In sum, this is as much a polemical documentary of its time as Triumph of the Will was for the 1930s - though rather than persuade you with grandiose spectacles of fascist supermen, it's a more dialogic approach, informed by the rhetorical techniques of college seminars and group counseling sessions.  It's open, embracing and incredibly potent, appealing to both reason and sentiment. While watching it at age twelve I came away with an appreciation of Milk and the gay rights movement, this time I stand in awe of the power of a masterfully constructed cinematic narrative to imbue people with a new outlook, its force a million times more powerful than the gun that took Harvey Milk's life.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Times of Harvey Milk among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Daniel Barnz, IonCinema! (2009) Laura Gabbert, PBS Independent Lens (2007) Marco Williams, PBS Independent Lens (2008) Nakano Rie, Sight & Sound (1992) Vivian Kleiman, PopcornQ (1997) Empire, The 250 Greatest Films You've Never Seen - Documentary (2007) San Francisco Chronicle, Vintage Video - A Hot 100 From Out of the Past (1997) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films Official film site


"If Dan White had only killed George Moscone, he would have gone up for life," one person says in the film. "But he killed a gay, and so they let him off easy."

This is not necessarily the case, and the weakest element in "The Times of Harvey Milk" is its willingness to let Milk's friends second-guess the jury, and impugn the jurors motives.

Many people who observed White's trial believe that White got a light sentence, not because of anti-gay sentiment, but because of incompetent prosecution. Some of the jurors were presumably available to the filmmakers, and the decision not to let them speak for themselves - to depend instead on the interpretations of Milk's friends and associates is a serious bias.

That objection aside, this is an enormously absorbing film, for the light it sheds on a decade in the life of a great American city and on the lives of Milk and Moscone, who made it a better, and certainly a more interesting, place to live.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, February 22 1985

The Times of Harvey Milk, though relatively undistinguished as filmmaking, is invaluable as a cinematic account of the life and legacy of Harvey Milk. It doesn’t tell everything about him- what movie could?- but it’s a great jumping-off point.

Much more interesting, and illuminating to Milk’s legacy, is a pair of public events that followed Milk’s death, the first a candlelight vigil a few days after Milk was shot, the second a full-scale riot in reaction to the White verdict. It’s in the second case that Milk’s absence is most profoundly felt. The Milk we get to know throughout the course of The Times of Harvey Milk was not about violence or fear, but a positive inspiration to others- as someone else once put it, “a uniter, not a divider.” In one of his most famous speeches, Milk said, “you gotta give ‘em hope,” a message that seems particularly relevant today, considering the hopeful message of change put forth by our recent President-elect. How unfortunate, then, that there was no Milk-like figure to lead the movement to defeat California’s Proposition 8. With anti-gay marriage laws being passed across the country, will we soon see the times of the next Harvey Milk? Only time will tell.

- Paul Clark, Nerve.com

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.

- Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk



Epstein's grandest coup, and what elevates Harvey Milk beyond being a stunning, emotional docudrama and into the realm of elegant social activism, is in the subtle parallels he draws between the Milk-White dichotomy and the concurrent, controversial battle over Proposition 6, which would grant California public schools permission to fire openly gay teachers. The coalescing Moral Majority brigade (which would form the first significant American movement in backlash against the gay community's gains since Stonewall) were putting all their chips on a wager that the American public's tolerance would only go so far, and the line in the sand: "the children." It was a bet that was paying off in elections across the country in the late '70s (to a musical accompaniment from Anita Bryant).

If their argument was that children's pre-sexuality is malleable and in jeopardy of being corrupted by "subversive influences," Epstein effectively pokes a hole in the logic by suggesting that White's fragile psychological state (one crucial detail in White's case history that occurred following the film's production was his suicide in 1985) is as much a product of the inadequate social upbringing that set him up to believe in a world where heterosexuals triumphed over homosexuals. When Harvey Milk emerged as a popular (and cunning) politician who was capable of beating White at his own game, White's petulance and irrationality seemed to finger him as a man reverting to a state of mental adolescence, reaching a climax with black-and-white video footage of White going ballistic in the council chambers and batting his microphone away in indignation.

Epstein's strategy pays off in the decision to allow White's teary courtroom breakdown, the one many feel let him off with the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist, play out for a veritable eternity, even daring viewers to identify with his inner torment. (White's legal team's infamous "Twinkie defense" seems like the ultimate substantiation of this sort of developmental retardation, and the fact that homosexuality had only recently been removed from psychological classifications for mental illnesses is the sick punchline.) It's precisely this sort of benevolence to White, perhaps unwarranted in the eyes of Harvey Milk's target audience, that turns a story of predestination (Milk actually recorded his thoughts to be broadcast in the event of his assassination) into a demand for unqualified social openness—specifically, mandated public education—about the realities of sexual diversity. Without it, White was left without any sense of moral bearing and, yes, could conceivably not be held accountable for his actions. This concept gives greater gravity to Milk's own vigorous exhortations for all homosexuals to "come out of the closet! You must!" It's one thing for a documentary to claim a person great, it's something else entirely to convince the audience they have an active role in fulfilling his legacy.

- Eric Henderson, Slant

Review by Jonathan Kim, The Huffington Post:

"Twinkie defense" is a term that came into popular use after the murder trial. It is often mistakenly believed that White's lawyers claimed that their client's actions were motivated by his consumption of an unusually large amount of junk food. That's not quite true; the actual argument was that White was extremely depressed at the time of his murder, and that his out-of-character appetite for Twinkies and other sweets was simply evidence of his depression, not the cause. I'm not disputing a huge injustice was done at White's trial, but as a comprehensive documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk really should have set the record straight instead of repeating this misconception.

In Rob Epstein's interview at the Director's Guild, he explains that he intended this film to be a gay documentary that would reach to straight audiences. In this respect, Epstein has been completely successful, revealing Harvey Milk to be a passionate, charismatic politician who fought for what he believed in, and was cruelly murdered for his efforts. The Times of Harvey Milk is recommended for all viewers.

- Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict

This documentary starts with the end of Milk's life, with Dianne Feinstein's pained announcement to the press that Milk and Moscone were shot and killed. It's a curious thing to start with the film's big climax, but it turns out to be the best move documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein (The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175) could make, as it makes everything that follows all the more resonant. From then on, Epstein shows bit of interviews with several of Milk's peers, giving us some insight of the man behind the media image, showing his selflessness and interest in helping everyone he can, in his effort to promote unity and acceptance, not only for the gay community, but for everyone.

Epstein also manages to secure a wealth of television footage, from interviews of Milk himself, to key newscasts which has relevance to Milk's life. The interviews and footage are woven together perfectly, with a sequence of events that gives us a great feel for the man that Harvey Milk was, and what he meant to so many people. great care is taken to show Milk in the most human light possible, and not as a martyr or person who could do no wrong. It does concentrate on his strengths, however, which was mostly his ability to touch people's lives and gain their respect.

If there is any downside to this fantastic film, it's that it couldn't end on the heartfelt vigil held in Milk's honor shortly after his death, which provides perhaps the most emotionally poignant moment of the movie. Unfortunately, the trial of Milk's killer, Dan White, was so bizarre that it had to follow after, which does erase some of the momentum and shift away from Milk's life. Epstein does eventually tie it back together, though, by ending the film with the notion that Milk's sexuality might have played a role in his demise, which wasn't really that evident in the presentation here. The film was released shortly before White would take his own life, the following year.

- Vince Leo

(L to R) Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and GLAAD President Neil



When did you decide to make a film about Milk's life?

I had already started the project before Harvey was killed. I started to do a film about the Briggs Initiative -- Proposition 6 -- for the very reasons we were just talking about. 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.

How has audience reaction changed to the film over the years, or has it? When it first reached theaters, it really wasn't long after all of these events had happened.

People are still shocked by the whole trial, the results and the Twinkie defense -- that's still stunning people who are unfamiliar with it. People react to the film on different levels, but certainly I think the primary response to the film is that, up until now, it's where Harvey Milk has lived. For the past 20 years he's lived in the documentary, and that's continued for generations who weren't familiar with the story. Now, with "Milk," there's a whole other level of Harvey's story that will get out there, because "Milk" is a much more personal film, in a way.

11242008_timesofharveymilk1.jpgHow did "The Times of Harvey Milk" inform "Milk"? Quite a few scenes in the latter were direct reenactments of footage used in your documentary.

That's true. "The Times of Harvey Milk" was foundational, I would say. I was certainly a friend of the film and a good friend of Gus. We did oral histories with dozens of people, which helped us figure out what the essence of the story was and who we wanted to tell it. From our archive, we had a lot of oral histories with the characters that are in "Milk": Scott Smith and Cleve Jones and Danny Nicoletta and Anne Kronenberg. It was great to be able to offer those to the actors.

- Interviewed by Alison Willmore, IFC.com


To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Harvey Milk's assassination, Telling Pictures and New Yorker Films have released this special DVD edition of Rob Epstein's landmark documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, with commentary by Rob and editor Deborah Hoffmann.

Excellent dual layered DVD from New Yorker. The image is as good as can be expected for a relatively low budget independent documentary film. Colors are true - some of the archival footage is damaged slightly but it has no effect on viewing enjoyment. Audio is clear. I would have preferred subtitles as an option to translate some background dialogue in newsreel footage. The Extras are endless, with commentary and a whole 2nd disc of detailed information. I would rank this up there with New Yorker "Jazz on a Summer's Day" as perhaps their best DVD release to date. This is a must-own disc. It is as eye-opening and enjoyable as any film/DVD I have seen all year.

- Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver.com

New Yorker Films, not exactly known for loading their discs with special features, should be commended for the extra effort that has gone into this release. On the first disc is a commentary with Rob Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman, and Daniel Nicoletta, a photographer whose work is featured in the film. Focusing almost exclusively on the filmmaking process, this track contains a generally interesting discussion on putting together a documentary on a limited budget. Pop in the second disc for a better look at Milk's legacy. Best of the batch is a 15-minute Q&A session with Rob Epstein and Tom Ammiano from the Director's Guild, Los Angeles, reflecting on the significance of the film. "Harvey Speaks Out" is billed as an outtakes featurette, but it's doubtful that many of these short TV clips were actually considered for inclusion—they just feature Milk talking about different city issues. A four minute "Dan White Update" picks up where the film left off, and is mainly included to acknowledge White's parole and suicide. Self-explanatory are "Academy Awards Presentation" from 1985 and "San Francisco Premiere: Castro Theatre," which features a few short speeches of interest. A less effective "alternate ending," a lengthy trailer, and a photo gallery are also included.

Perhaps the most important extras are those that specifically look back at the murder of Harvey Milk and talk about what it that means to us today. "1st Anniversary" is just a short speech by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, but the "25th Anniversary Events" comprises the major portion of the second disc. Kicking it off is "Dan White Case Revisited," a 45-minute round table on the Dan White case and its impact. Next up are tributes offered by George Moscone's son Chris Moscone and Harvey Milk's nephew Stuart Milk, followed by a speech by the man appointed to fill Milk's seat after his death, Harry Britt. It all ends with more speeches at a candlelight memorial at the Castro. There may be a few too many talking heads in these bonus features for some people, but overall, this is a nice little package.

- Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict