"I ask for the movement to continue, for the movement to grow because last week, I got the phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all it's what this is all about. It's not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power -- it's about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias hope. You gotta give them hope."
-- Harvey Milk (11/18/78)
Recorded just nine days before his assassination, the above quote continues to resonate as the emotional high point of Rob Epstein's 1984 Oscar winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk—a poignant summary about his seminal achievement of becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to a prominent political position in California. Although Epstein's film relies on numerous talking heads, he avoids constructing a traditional biopic by focusing on Milk's brief political career and structuring the film as a contrast between the outspoken flamboyant crusader for human rights and freedom and his quiet assassin Dan White, described as a conservative All-American working class guy.
With a feature film about Milk opening on the 30th anniversary of his murder and the recent California proposition narrowing passing that prohibits gay marriage, re-visiting Epstein's documentary most timely. Although Milk inspired many gays to dedicate themselves to fight for human rights, few prominent public figures rose to eloquently bash Prop 6 the way Milk did when the Briggs initiative sought to get rid of gay teachers in the public school system. Debating with Senator Briggs, Milk's impeccable logic sets the homophobic Senator back on his heels
While gay rights have made significant strides during the past three decades, it's evident that society remains significantly homophobic and could use more politicians like Harvey Milk to challenge old ideas. There is absolutely no doubt that Milk would have devoted all his energies into defeating Proposition 6 since he staunchly fought for human rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
1. If teachers are so influential as role models just how could Milk grow up to be a gay man despite being taught by heterosexuals in an environment hostile to gays?
2.If the primary motive is to protect children, why ban gays from teaching when research clearly shows that heterosexual men are FAR more likely to molest children?
Not a born politician, Milk arose from his small camera shop in the Castro with a grass roots campaign that eventually led him to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. A "people person" who consistently demonstrated caring and a tremendous sense of humor, Milk masterfully formed coalitions between a wide spectrum of people, all the while mindful of his gay/lesbian community base. One striking interviewee is Jim Elliot, a union leader who formerly had considered gays less than human before meeting Milk; he completely transformed his attitude after seeing how effective Milk was.
Other interviewees include emotional Tom Ammiato (a teacher directly impacted by the Briggs battle) and more philosophical associates Anne Cronenberg (campaign organizer), Sally M. Gearhart (campaign worker), Henry Der (head of Chinese for Affirmative Action). All were greatly impacted by Harvey Milk.
But Epstein's film serves a far greater purpose than mere homage; it chronicles a critical juncture in the struggle for gay rights while subtly reminding viewers about silent obstacles that still remain thirty years later. Introducing the film with Diane Feinstein's horrifying announcement of the assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Moscone to the local paparazzi, it shows how shock and outrage gave way to a spontaneous peaceful candlelight march from the Castro down Market Street to City Hall. But later when the courts make a mockery of justice to reduce Dan White's pre-meditated murder charge to manslaughter, footage of street riots and burning police cars fills the screen.
Epstein edits in key evidence to show how the judicial system deliberately excludes gays and other minorities from the jury of White's peers to ensure a sympathetic peer group that is swayed by White's tearful confession and his lawyer's infamous "Twinkie" defense. After all, how could any upstanding straight Anglo All-American boy ever commit such a dastardly deed, and that gun and extra ammunition was merely an automatic response from a former policeman who was financially strapped and had just lost his city supervisor job.
Throughout the film, Epstein keeps Milk's political agenda in mind, showing first hand how a courageous individual stood up to the system and fought for human rights and progress beyond the constraints of his own mortality. Milk's final plea retains its relevancy today because many closeted gays and lesbians continue to legitimately fear being open about their sexuality. The silent Dan Whites continue to populate the world and mis-read the souls of people that they'll never know fully. That is why Milk's exhortations for gays/lesbians to "come out" to friends, relatives, and co-workers is such a profound political statement. When more of the "straight" world recognizes people they know, love, and respect, the less likely they will be voting for the next Proposition 6 that comes along.
Note: Now available on Blu-ray with proper Criterion Collection definitive transfer and extra features.