The Times of Harvey Milk
Milk was the first openly gay man to win an election for public office in California. He had moved to San Francisco from New York like many young gay men of the era, drawn by the promise of a more tolerant society. There he opened a camera shop in the city's gay district centering on Castro Street. His interest in politics, particularly the rights of LGBT peoples and small business owners, grew, led him to run for the city's Board of Supervisors, a position he finally won in 1977. As a city supervisor, he sponsored major civil rights legislation and campaigned successfully against state legislator John Briggs's ballot initiative to ban gay men, lesbians and their supporters from working in the state's public schools. Less than a year into his term, however, he and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978. Milk's death triggered a massive candlelight rally in his memory, followed months later by riots when White was let off with a reduced sentence. Despite his death, however, his memory and his message of hope and inclusiveness have lived on as a demonstration of the powerful political clout of LGBT voters.
That was the message Epstein ultimately hoped to send out with his documentary on Milk. As a young gay man, Epstein had gravitated to San Francisco because of its reputation as a gay mecca. Although initially he had no real interest in film, he landed a job at the Mariposa Film Group, where he helped make the seminal gay documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977). For his next project, he and his Mariposa mentor, Peter Adair, started work on a short film about the Briggs Initiative. That put him in touch with Milk. When the city supervisor was killed three weeks after defeating the Briggs Initiative, Epstein decided to focus his entire film on the man.
Milk's death also changed the nature of the film. In the words of critic B. Ruby Rich, the film had started out as a "grassroots documentary chronicle." Epstein initially filmed the campaign against the Briggs Initiative in the thick of the action, following Milk as he debated Briggs and personally campaigned to sway voters against the ballot measure. With Milk's death, it became more an analysis of his political career and its impact on the nation. Epstein contacted many of the man's political and business associates for interviews and enlisted journalist Judith Coburn and novelist Carter Wilson to write a narration, eventually recorded by actor-playwright and four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein. He financed the film through a series of house parties where he showed portions of the unfinished film to raise money for its completion. He also used those parties to get insight on what needed to be included to help the film speak to the needs of people, gay and straight, around the nation.
Focus Film picked the film up for distribution and premiered it, quite appropriately, at the Castro Theatre. They even contributed to the restoration of that historical theatre in the Castro District. The Times of Harvey Milk was met with strong praise from critics. In The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert called it "an enormously absorbing film, for the light it sheds on a decade in the life of a great American city and on the lives of Milk and Moscone, who made it a better, and certainly a more interesting, place to live." In addition to the Oscar®, the film won awards from the New York Film Critics, Boston Society of Film Critics, the International Documentary Association, the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and Sundance. When it aired on television, it was honored with an Emmy and a Peabody Award. In 2012, it was voted a place on the National Film Registry.
But the film's legacy reaches beyond mere awards. It launched Epstein's career, leading to a second Oscar®-winning documentary, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), the acclaimed documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995), based on Vito Russo's seminal history of gay images in motion pictures, and his first dramatic film, Howl (2010), inspired by Allen Ginsburg's most famous poem and starring James Franco. When California's anti-marriage equality initiative, Proposition 8, passed in 2008, activists fighting for its repeal turned to his first great film, The Times of Harvey Milk, to learn how to organize what would prove to be a successful opposition.
All of that is matched by the considerable legacy of the film's subject. The intersection of Market and Castro in San Francisco was renamed Harvey Milk Plaza, and the city's Gay Democratic Club changed its name to the Harvey Milk Memorial Gay Democratic Club. A New York City school for LGBT youth at risk was founded in 1985 and named the Harvey Milk School. In 2009, his nephew, Stuart Milk, accepted a Presidential Medal of Freedom on his uncle's behalf from President Barack Obama. He and Epstein then screened The Times of Harvey Milk in the White House. The same year, Stuart Milk and his uncle's campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, co-founded the Harvey Milk Foundation to spread Milk's message of hope, acceptance and inclusion. And California officially declared May 22 Harvey Milk Recognition Day.
By Frank Miller
Producer: Rob Epstein, Richard Schmiechen
Director: Rob Epstein
Screenplay: Judith Coburn, Carter Wilson
Cinematography: Frances Reid
Score: Mark Isham
Cast: Harvey Fierstein (Narrator), Harvey Milk (Himself, archive footage), Anne Kronenberg, Tory Hartmann, Tom Ammiano, Jim Elliot, Sally M. Gearhart (Themselves)