Directed by Rob Epstein, and winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1984, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) tells the story of a man who has become a symbol and an inspiration in the fight for the human rights of marginalised groups, after his untimely death at the hands of a political rival. Harvey Milk was just 48 when he was shot and killed at his office by Dan White, a former fellow District Supervisor of San Francisco. This documentary tells the story of Harvey’s life, his rise to political power, the causes that he fought so hard for, his murder, and the aftermath of his death. Found to be culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant at the United States Library of Congress, it is an incredibly powerful documentary about someone who fought tirelessly for the the rights of others.
The Times of Harvey Milk is one of those documentaries where after you finish it, you feel supremely sad. The film does such an amazing job at exploring its focus, Harvey Milk’s life and ideals, passions and goals, and the aftermath and uproar after his death. After finishing this, you can’t help but mourn the lost future of what such an influential and prolific human rights activist could have achieved had he not been murdered in cold blood.
Harvey was the first openly gay city official in the United States of America. He had a relatively normal upbringing, he joined the navy after high school, then worked as a Wall Street banker, then eventually made his way to setting up a camera shop at the now famous Castro Street in San Francisco, where he eventually ran his political campaigns. We see his rise to power and how he kept losing elections but slowly gained a following of people who knew he would stand up for their rights, as no one else would. At age 47, he was elected to the Board of Supervisors to represent District 5 of San Francisco, a new system whereby the political responsibility for the city was split up into districts where each candidate could attend to each district’s specific needs. Harvey represented change. He was the representative of not just gay people, but all marginalised people – the elderly, people of colour, people who couldn’t speak English – and his policies reflected this. He started a grassroots political movement where alternative views about sexualities, cultures and lifestyles were more politically accepted. The Times of Harvey Milk takes much joy in exploring his successes, and in showing off his charming, charismatic demeanour and smile when discussing these issues with his constituents.
The Times of Harvey Milk begins on a sombre note, where we are shown a press conference and are reminded of the circumstances of his death. Where the documentary becomes the most serious and upsetting is in the final third of the film, where the aftermath of Harvey’s death is further addressed. We see the shock and numbness, and then beautiful, moving images of the candlelight vigil that mourned him on the streets of San Francisco. We then see the pure rage when his murderer’s relatively light sentence is revealed, that was expressed through passionate and violent protests that resulted in city property being damaged and police cars being burned. But, as one interviewee expresses, “You can replace a glass window … you can’t replace Harvey”. The moments that are spent exploring the reasons around the light sentencing, and the court case that lead to former fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White being given a fairly light prison sentence for the murder of two men, are completely fascinating.
The Times of Harvey Milk is constructed in terms of talking head interviews by those who knew Harvey, his political aides, and those he helped out, such as a gay school teacher who faced certain unemployment if the controversial Proposition 6 bill were ever to pass. These interviews speak over footage of Harvey and the events that surrounded him, from both candid video and news footage. Several newspaper clippings are also shown on screen to illustrate the reach of his influence. A voiceover by Harvey Fierstein guides this narrative. Emotive synthesiser music is heard throughout, as well as the occasional 70s disco tune to express the music of the times. Overall, the film is constructed in an incredibly effective manner, with a logical flow of information and events building to an emotional crescendo that will leave you with a significant sense of loss.
It is important to note that this documentary does not present Harvey Milk as a perfect person. We are shown footage of him blowing his nose as he has a cold during a recorded television interview, and some interviewees speak to his temper tantrums as a result of stress. A congruent picture of a person is formed – not someone who is unrealistically perfect all the time. The Times of Harvey Milk stresses the importance of realism, which is an ideal quality for all documentaries.
However, some moments of this documentary are quite dated – there is the use of some pejorative terms and slang for gay people that made me feel quite uncomfortable, but may have been considered ‘normal’ for the time period. My other significant complaint is that the time dedicated to Dan White’s court case and sentencing seemed to cover a lot of information in a shorter expanse of time, where more time would be necessary to explore the finite details of this. I would watch an entire documentary on that court case, why Dan White did what he did, and the reasons why his particular sentence was reached; but as it is, there was not an entire film’s worth of time to dedicate to that level of detail.
During The Times of Harvey Milk there is a palpable sense that all Harvey Milk ever wanted was for the marginalised groups that he was working for to attain the rights they deserved as citizens of the United States and as humans in general. He urges his political and moral opposition to “turn the pages of history a little faster”; to see that ultimately the injustices and deprivations of rights that occur in relation to certain minority groups are on the wrong side of history – to look forward and see that there is a better way to treat people. Harvey Milk represented a message of hope for anyone who needed it – be they gay, heterosexual, Caucasian, people of colour, the elderly, the young. This documentary communicates that hope in such a congruent and beautiful way, despite the ugly circumstances surrounding his death. It is a truly excellent documentary that I would highly suggest watching.
Watch the trailer here.
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