The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) description by Matt Lawrence
These days, The Times of Harvey Milk is universally regarded as one of the greatest of the civil rights documentaries. (Actually, one of the greatest documentaries, period.) Yet, upon its initial release in 1984, one influential critic dismissed it as “a flimsy work of partisan politics.” Even supporters felt the need to take an “even-handed” approach to the issues in the film. When it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, the Academy described it as “a film about American values in conflict.”
As such responses suggest, The Times of Harvey Milk was made during a period when civil rights for gays and lesbians were so threatening that many would identify with Harvey’s murderer, Dan White. (While an undergraduate at Trinity College in the late 80’s, Fox News host Tucker Carlson was a member of the “Dan White Society.” His only journalistic writing was one op-ed insisting that gays and lesbians were unhealthy and unnatural.) Given this environment, what the filmmakers accomplished was extraordinary. They told a story of that time that speaks just as eloquently to us today.
Historical documentaries often struggle to find first-hand accounts and authentic images to show their stories, but The Times of Harvey Milk is a rare exception. The main characters were all public figures. Copious interviews and photographs were available. But this fortunate circumstance would have been lost without the perspective and talent of the director, Rob Epstein.
As a 19-year-old fresh off the bus from New York, Epstein picked up a paper in San Francisco and answered an ad for a “nonsexist gay man” with “insane dedication and a cooperative spirit” to work with Peter Adair’s Mariposa Film Group. With Epstein onboard, Mariposa created the first feature documentary on the lives of gays and lesbians in the US (Word is Out, 1978). Epstein had found his calling, and began to look for a follow-up project. He was inspired by the “No on Prop. 6” campaign led by Harvey Milk, and began to do interviews. When Milk was suddenly assassinated, Epstein’s prior research and contacts gave him rare access to history-in-the-making, and it is our remarkable good fortune that he met this circumstance with the passion and skills of an accomplished filmmaker.
Milk had won election to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977, in part by building a diverse coalition among communities who felt they had no voice in city government. It included ethnic and racial minorities, unions, trade interests, and senior citizens as well as the “gay and lesbian” community. (This was the 70’s; the LGBTQIA initials hadn’t yet been coined.) Epstein spent months talking with diverse witnesses and participants to find a handful who could best tell Harvey’s story and put a face on this movement.
A generation of youth – straight as well as LGBTQIA+ – recall seeing the film as a transformative experience. (Among them, middle-schooler Lance Black, who would later write the Oscar-winning screenplay for Milk and bring Harvey’s story to a new generation.) In the years since it was first released, the audience for The Times of Harvey Milk has grown and grown. It has informed generations on how to build social and political movements. Harvey would have loved this!