Winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 1985 Academy Awards, Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk was recently made available through Fandor as part of their Criterion Picks. After previously reading The Mayor of Castro Street and watching Gus Van Sant’s biopic, Milk, not seeing this was a glaring hole and it’s worth a watch for how it tells about gay state representative Harvey Milk through the eyes of those who knew him, presenting a “human factor” unseen in Van Sant’s depiction.
Narrated by Harvey Fierstein, The Times of Harvey Milk explores the political career of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay men elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and his untimely assassination by a fellow colleague.
Nothing against Van Sant’s film, but where The Times of Harvey Milk seems more balanced is in discussing all the people within Milk’s wheelhouse, not just the man himself. This isn’t to say Milk is unimportant, especially since this is his story, but The Times of Harvey Milk personifies everyone Milk came into contact with, from unsung victim, mayor George Moscone, to the murderer, Dan White. Epstein and crew don’t waste time tracking each person from life to death, although there is requisite talk about Milk’s childhood.
Instead, in just 90-minutes, the film gives a strong overview of Milk’s political career, the various pros and cons to the route he took, and why affected people beyond just the homosexual community. There’s a portrait, not simply of a man, but of a movement in a time where people’s attention wasn’t focused on it.
Who would have thought a small community in San Francisco would become the birthplace of the gay rights movement, and that’s what Epstein’s film really wants to examine. In its own way, there does seem to be a thinness to Milk’s life and career, since everything moves very briskly, but at the core it’s about more than a single man. It’s about what that one man did to shape change we’re still seeing the ramifications of today. Milk’s underdog nature and desire to cater to all oppressed groups, not just homosexuals but the elderly and disabled as well, seems reminiscent of current Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
The exploration of the Castro district in the 1970s has a vibrancy and inclusive atmosphere, shown through home movies of people dancing and mingling in the streets. It’s like a daily house party too big for the house. There’s also more in-depth coverage regarding the various issues Milk was tackling, particularly the virulently discriminatory Proposition 6, allowing for homosexual teachers and their allies to be fired.
Included is footage from the Milk campaign of people interviewing random passersby regarding the proposition. It’s a comical, but ultimately touching at seeing minds changed instantly; a moment with an Asian couple talking about how it’s “a private matter” could have emphasized their bigotry. However, when the interviewers say the proposition could open the door for other minorities losing their jobs, the true impact sinks in and it’s a sobering moment for these people.
Epstein’s documentary also takes the time to humanize those outside of Milk. There are brief divergences towards the mayoral race of George Moscone, a man who dreamed of uniting and helping all San Franciscans. There’s also noninflammatory talk regarding Milk’s murderer, fellow supervisor Dan White. The doc doesn’t demonize White’s actions, although it would have been great to explore the famed “Twinkie Defense” in greater detail. For Epstein and crew, everyone has lost, whether it’s a chance at a career or a chance to do good in the future, uniting all of them in a way with their lost potential.
Filled with countless interviews from people wanting to make a difference, The Times of Harvey Milk isn’t the flashiest documentary, but contains an overarching melancholy at a life cut short.