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2 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Times of Harvey Milk, The
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by Aaron West

"Maybe not as relevant today as it was in 1984, but still intriguing."
4 stars

I must say, it’s a different experience watching this documentary today than it must have been 20 years ago. We live in a different world today, somewhat better, somewhat worse than the world in which Harvey Milk fought his battle. On one hand, homosexuals are more widely accepted with roles in public office. We’ve had several gay congressmen, including Barney Frank, who has been in office since 1981. On the other hand, the fight for gay rights has been an arduous one, with several states recently losing the battle for gay marriage and others still fighting. Still, things are probably better for minorities across the board today than they were during Milk’s day, notwithstanding our red state/blue state political spectrum. A different world or not, Harvey Milk’s efforts undoubtedly paved the way for a more open-minded and accepting mainstream, who have taken up Harvey’s cause in their perpetual war with the Christian Moral Majority.

Harvey Milk was an openly gay small businessman, living in San Francisco’s infamous Castro district. Always a fiery gay activist, he decided to pursue a position where his actions would have more influence, specifically the local San Francisco government. He unsuccessfully ran for City Supervisor on three occasions, each time garnering a larger share of the vote. In the late 1970s, San Francisco tried a new districting method, allowing Supervisors to be elected exclusively by their neighbors. This was a big break for the largely gay Castro district, and especially a break for Harvey. He ran for the 4th time the following election, this time successfully.

Harvey Milk accepted his election as a mandate from his people to relentlessly pursue civil liberties issues, not only concerning homosexuals, but also other minority groups. And that’s just what he did. Unfortunately, Harvey’s time was short. After a short time in office, he and Mayor George Moscone were tragically murdered at the hand of another supervisor, Dan White. Don’t worry about spoilers here. This is revealed at the very beginning of the movie.

The Times of Harvey Milk, as a documentary, shows exactly that. It is a portrait of the man’s personality, his politics, and his life history. They are quite effective at conveying Harvey’s character, by using a combination of talking head interviews from those who knew him best, and by using Harvey’s own words from archived news footage of his speeches. He was no doubt an articulate, passionate man, with a distinctly pleasant personality, and the documentary’s portrayal helps the audience understand why he was such a popular local personality. This also helps us understand and even empathize with the gravity of San Francisco’s reaction towards Harvey’s shocking death.

One of the more interesting and persuasive testimonials comes in the form of heterosexual blue-collar unionist, Jim Elliott. His rugged demeanor is a noticeable contrast from the other interviewees, plus he brings a different, straight perspective to the film. He claims to have developed respect for Harvey not through his gay activism, but for his other efforts towards the city. After listening to Milk speak, he found that he was mostly in agreement with the man’s politics and was able to ignore the sexual preference. Elliott brings the voice of all the straight men that marched in honor of Milk into the film, which helps level out what many might see as one-sided rhetoric.

In the early going of the documentary, they contrast the lives of Supervisor Milk with his eventual killer. Supervisor Dan White is depicted as an all-American white boy. He is often seen stumbling with or reaching for his words, especially compared with the smooth talking Milk, who seems to always come up with the right thing to say, even when caught off guard. The movie portrays White as a somewhat homophobic and unquestionably the political opposite of his eventual victim. The Proposition 6 issue, the bill that would have outlawed homosexual teachers, is where the divide between the two men is clearly seen. When they show White discussing the issue, he seems poorly prepared or presents a flimsy argument. Milk, on the other hand, who played a large part is championing the proposition’s defeat, comes off as eloquent, erudite and convincing. There is no mistaking the filmmaker’s feelings towards the two men.

Don’t expect an honest, unbiased account of the events. The Times of Harvey Milk isn’t too far removed from the slanted political documentaries of last year’s election. For instance, the murder itself wasn’t motivated by Harvey’s sexuality or political leanings, but rather due to his opposition to Smith’s reinstatement as a supervisor, after a hasty and ill-advised resignation the week prior. They do make this point in the movie, but it becomes forgotten due to how strongly they push the issue of Harvey being a controversial gay man. The film provides its version of both the events and the issues, which maybe somewhat slanted, but it doesn’t outright lie. This isn’t a criticism, because like the poltical documentaries of 2004, a balanced argument wouldn’t translate so well to the film medium, that is, to a piece of entertainment.

The issue of gay rights may not be quite as relevant today as it was in 1984 years ago, but that doesn’t take away from what was a provocative and intriguing piece of filmmaking. If anything, the project is more entertaining today, because it can be absorbed as entertainment while being relatively removed from its politics.

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originally posted: 06/08/05 10:38:31
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This film is listed in our political documentary series. For more in the Political Documentary series, click here.

User Comments

6/12/09 tung ton excellent doc on a pioneer 5 stars
2/18/07 action movie fan decent documentary of gay congressman 3 stars
7/17/04 tatum Stunning...what could have been... 5 stars
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  01-Nov-1984 (NR)
  DVD: 22-Mar-2011

  01-Jan-1985 (15)


Directed by
  Rob Epstein

Written by
  Judith Coburn
  Carter Wilson

  Harvey Fierstein

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