Directed by Rob Epstein and written by Epstein, Carter Wilson, and Judith Coburn, The Times of Harvey Milk is the story of San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor from his rise as the Mayor of Castro Street to the leader of the Gay Rights Movement in the late 1970s until his assassination in the hands of a city supervisor in 1978. The documentary is among one of the first documentaries about gay figures with interviews from people who knew Milk as well as footage about his life. Narrated by Harvey Fierstein with some audio archives from Harvey Milk, the documentary is one of the most captivating tales of one of the most renowned figures in the world of gay and lesbian rights.
From his early years living as a typical man from Long Island who served in the Navy after college, Harvey Milk’s life was one that people expected until the late 60s as he began to embrace his homosexuality and moved to San Francisco. With then-boyfriend Scott Smith, Milk opened a camera store where he became an unlikely leader for the community in the Castro district filled with gays and lesbians. After trying to run for office in San Francisco three different times from 1973 to 1975, Milk made another attempt when the election laws changed for people to vote in their own districts where Milk would win in 1977.
While Milk was a voice for the gay community, he also helped out people such as the elderly and disabled while creating a bill to help get rid of dog shit in city parks. With a board of city supervisors that featured a group of diverse people from different backgrounds ethnically or socially, one of them was a former firefighter named Dan White who felt out of place with the rest of the board as he voted against Milk’s gay rights bill. Milk’s political career reached its apex when he challenged Senator John Briggs Proposition 6 initiative to ban gay teachers from teaching as Milk through a grassroots campaign won.
Yet, Milk’s own victory was short-lived following White’s resignation who seeks to get his job back only to kill Milk and mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978. White was charged for murder only to be reduced for manslaughter leading to an outrage from the gay community in the White Night riots in May of 1979.
The documentary is mostly about Milk’s political career with some insight into his life though it opens with then-board of supervisors president Dianne Feinstein announcing the deaths of Milk and Moscone which is later seen again. Director Rob Epstein provides a lot of insight into Milk’s life through the audio recording Milk made in 1977 as well as old news footage and old interviews he made during his life. With interviews from various people including Milk’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, school teacher Tom Ammiano, and professor Sally Gearhart who helped Milk during the Briggs debate. Many reveal Milk’s eccentric yet joyful personality as well as his flaws. Yet, there is a lot to learn about Milk for the way he wants to be more than just a gay activist fighting for gay rights as he simply wants to make the world a much better place.
Through these interviews and discussions, it reveals Milk’s own ambition as well as the simple ideas he wants to improve the city. Though it’s not surprising he has his opponents, it’s the way Milk handles them that really makes him more compelling. Particularly a meeting with the very religious Ruth Carter Stapleton where Milk uses humor to deal with her attempt to convert him to heterosexuality. Milk’s personality and to help people who feel like they don’t have a voice provides a lot of warmth to the film which makes his death so devastating to a lot of people.
For the character of Dan White, Epstein allows the man, through news footage and interviews from other people about him, to be displayed as someone who was clearly out of step with the changing times. Epstein does try to humanize White by revealing his own background and family life but also reveal someone who was deeply troubled and couldn’t cope with these different groups of people including Milk on the board. Though there is no clear explanation into why White killed Milk and Moscone but the reaction over what the charges he received was understandably upsetting to a lot of people. The overall work Epstein provides is a film that is truly mesmerizing about the life of an unlikely American hero whose life was cut tragically short just as he was becoming a big political figure.
The editing by Epstein and Deborah Hoffman is great for the use of rhythmic cuts and gathering news footage and archives to help tell the story. Notably to help use these old super 8 film footages and news reports to help tell certain parts of Milk’s work as a city supervisor. Cinematographer Frances Reid brings a wonderfully realistic look to the interviews with sound editor John Benson and mixer Lee Dichter to capture the moments that is captured through old footage and in Harvey Fierstein’s superb narration. Mark Isham’s soft, electronic score is excellent for its low-key pieces to capture the mood of the times as well as some dark themes for some of the darker moments in the film.
The Times of Harvey Milk is a magnificent documentary from Rob Epstein about the late yet legendary gay political figure who eventually became an icon to the gay and lesbian community. Audiences wanting to know more about Harvey Milk should see this while Gus Van Sant’s 2008 bio-pic Milk also serves as a great companion piece. For documentaries, this film stands as one of the best as well as a film that should be required to be seen for young students not just because of its historical elements but also for its social aspects of how it helped give rise to homosexuality’s openness. In the end, The Times of Harvey Milk is a must-see documentary about one of the great key figures in rise of gay and lesbian movement from the vision of Rob Epstein.
© thevoid99 2011
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