In January of 1985, a documentary filmmaker named Robert Epstein stood to receive the first Oscar ever given to a film that dealt with gay and lesbian history. In thanking the academy and his colleagues for recognizing his work on The Times of Harvey Milk, Epstein made Oscar history a second time by publicly thanking his male partner for his love and support. Epstein would follow up this success with the award winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and a host of other documentary and narrative projects, including the 2010 film, Howl.
If you are not familiar with Epstein’s work, you almost certainly know Gus Van Sant’s Milk, an extraordinary evocation of a time, a place and a hero of human rights and American civil liberties. Sean Penn’s performance, perhaps the finest of his career, lifted an already extraordinary story into the sublime.
If you loved, and learned, from the bio-pic, you must see Criterion’s release of Epstein’s academy award winning documentary. Criterion has worked its usual magic in revitalizing and sharpening a film now more than a quarter of a century old. Absolutely packed with important historic featurettes beyond the usually “making of” material, this is an essential document for educators, scholars, activists and filmmlovers.
Filmmaker Robert Epstein began his film as a study of political activism, filming interviews and splicing together local news footage into 16mm. The murder of Harvey Milk and its aftermath made the film into something more; a loving testament and a heartbreaking memory pressed into the service of social justice.
The Times of Harvey Milk is as much the history of a place as a person. A mountain of photographs provide a full picture of life in “the Castro”. Footage of street festivals and the neighborhood summer fair give some sense of the funkiness of life in the neighborhood in the ‘70s. Castro Cameras, Milk’s business and political headquarters, is evoked through images and interviews, revealing the enormous affection that campaign workers and neighborhood folks had for the place. As Milk’s deep concern for local and global issues made him “The Mayor of Castro Street”, the camera store became its city hall.
We get an astonishing picture of Milk’s activism and how he successfully created a broad tent coalition that included labor and immigration groups. The film also spends some time examining the life and work of Mayor George Moscone whose plan for neighborhood governance in the city opened up government to the diverse communities of the Bay city, ethnic minorities as well as LGBT people.
Epstein effectively shows a frightening picture of the backlash against the gay rights movement. California Senator John Briggs, with help from the emerging Christian right, campaigned for a draconian ballot initiative, proposition 6, that would have forced the firing of gay and lesbian public school teachers. In part because of a massive grassroots campaign fueled by Milk, Prop 6 went down to defeat.
We also see full documentation of the rise of city supervisor Dan White, “a different kind of populist” as the film describes him. An opponent of LGBT rights, White angrily resigned for reasons left murky by the film (and by history). Bizarrely, he sought to take his resignation back. Moscone refused to reappoint him, an event that became the trigger (if not the full explanation) for White’s killing of both Moscone and Milk.
The film hauntingly portrays the assassination of Milk and Moscone. Narration falls silent as we see police and reporters running through the city hall. The interviews with White’s associates, conducted only a few years after the assassination, reveal how the experience remained an open wound.
The last 15-minutes of the film deal with the extraordinary trial of White. It gives little attention to the now infamous “twinkie defense”, in which White’s attorney insisted that the crime had resulted from his client’s severe depression triggered by eating too much junk food. Instead, Epstein lingers on the incredible fact that White received only a sentence of seven years and eight months in Soledad prison for the murder of two public officials in a major American city.
Epstein shows how the city simply exploded with protests in response with images of a long line of police cruisers on fire and the incredibly violent clashes that followed. In one of the many compelling interviews that make up the film, Milk’s replacement on the Board of Supervisors responds to police comments about the level of violence by asserting that an act of violence had triggered it and that the jury’s willingness to give an assassin a free pass was itself an act of violence against the gay and lesbian community and the people of San Francisco.
A small booklet is included with the set, containing photographs and illuminating essays by film professor B. Ruby Rich, film restorationist Ross Lippman and even Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk. Rich tells Epstein’s story as well as the film and makes the case that it was a project that reached “beyond the limits of biography” to “bear witness” to the grass roots struggle for LGBT rights and the violent response to that struggle.
The second disc is an archive of historical material, extra footage and a closer look at the film’s legacy. One of the more interesting is the “Two Films, One Legacy” feature that includes discussion with Epstein and Van Sant about their effort to preserve the public memory of Milk and his struggle.
The features also include a panel discussion with the defense team of Dan White. The discussion is heavily excerpted but at least two points stand out. Steve Scherr, one of White’s attorney’s, essentially admits that he sought to keep gays and lesbians off of the jury. This is not surprising. What is surprising is the defense attorney’s assertion that Milk’s gay identity had nothing to do with his assassination even as they describe a jury whose deeply conservative attitudes more or less assured their sympathy for White. In fact, they again assert their primary theme from the trial: that “good people (churchgoing, white, heterosexual people) from good families don’t commit cold blooded murder.”
The features disc also includes five recordings of Milk’s speeches, including his response to Anita Bryant’s victory in Dade County Florida and his famous “political will”. Another set of recordings, excerpts from Epstein’s research material, includes extra interviews not used in the film with Cleve Jones, Scott Smith, Amber Hollibaugh and others. Finally, the features disc includes footage of a recent 27 November candlelight memorial. Taken together, these extras are a reconstruction of a period and an important contribution to collective memory.
This wealth of features and extra material aside, The Times of Harvey Milk itself is an important document and historical resource. Epstein’s own story is well worth knowing and remembering, just as we should remember the America in which he lived his story out. It’s worth noting that when Epstein took the simple step of thanking his partner for his support, the first mention of the AIDS epidemic by the American president was still two years away. By the time Reagan chose to acknowledge the epidemic, close to 40,000 Americans had died from a virus that had been killing them at an increasingly alarming rate since 1981.
This film is required viewing for making sense of both ‘70s America and the beginning of the 21st century. In so many respects, we are still living in the times of Harvey Milk, a time full of hope but still surrounded by dark forces.