The Times of Harvey Milk

This Academy Award-winning documentary from 1984 is still as required watching as ever.

For those not in the know, Harvey Milk was San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor – part of the Board that oversaw the governance of the City and County of San Francisco. His political success and his activism in the gay and minority communities of San Francisco made him an inspiration and exemplar of the LGBT community in San Francisco. Tragically, he was assassinated, along with the city’s then presiding mayor, by a fellow supervisor with whom he had had ideological disagreements.

This documentary chronicles Milk’s political rise and his time as a supervisor up to his assassination. It uses archival footage of Milk’s political campaigns, interviews and speeches, interspersed with contemporary interviews by Milk’s friends and associates.

The documentary gives a multifaceted portrayal of Milk. The narrator describes Milk and his campaign in sober, objective terms. Milk was an unlikely candidate for political office – he started out as a camera salesman based in the Castro, and slowly built up his political credentials from those humble beginnings by getting involved and showing leadership in local neighborhood matters, eventually giving himself the title of “Mayor of Castro Street”.

On the other hand, the interviews describe Milk from the perspective of him as a person – a friendly, uproarious and loud personage whose somewhat goofy personality belied his political savvy, but in fact probably had a salutary effect on his chances. After all, no one would take Milk seriously until he had amassed enough popular support, especially among his constituents in the often put-upon LGBT community.

But it is Milk’s own testimony that strikes a stranger chord. Milk saw himself as the exemplar and an inspiration for gay and lesbian men and women. He was self-aware enough to know that the community needed a leader to rally around, and just brazen enough to proffer himself as that figure, as it were. In the first minutes of the film, we are told that Milk made a recording of himself that was only to be played in the event of his assassination. In that recording, he stressed his role as a part of a movement greater than himself, but representative enough of that movement that he would be a target for assassination by persons who were “insecure, afraid, or unbalanced”, to paraphrase him. In that sense, he was indirectly, perhaps, using the eventuality of his death as a means to explain his mission, and to galvanize the gay community to action – that of coming out to the world, revealing themselves in order for the world to realize that they were normal people, fellow citizens, an inextricable part of everyday society, and not the mythologized bogeymen of the mainstream conservative imagination.

But Milk didn’t just serve as an inspiration for the gay community. He was adept at coalition building to garner mass support for his campaign, and reached out to other communities as well – communities that shared similar problems to that of the LGBT community in terms of political representation, such as the Asian American communities, labor unions, and others. Milk was the flag-bearer of the underdog, the dark horse, the put-upon. He was the vanguard of the liberal wave, and in that sense, personified the values that San Francisco has long prided itself upon – as the harlot city at the end of the continent, a Mecca for new ways of living, a haven for the downtrodden of America, their Promised Land, their El Dorado.

The documentary has thus given Milk an almost heroic gloss, for having done, or having tried to do, for the LGBT community what King had done for the African American population – to organize them, to tell them to fight, and to tell them how to fight, through his leadership by example. Milk did not have enough time to fully act on that direction, but there is no doubt from the documentary’s footage that Milk saw himself as a transformative figure, and wished for people in the gay community to follow his example – to have the courage to come out en masse, to demonstrate that LGBT folks should not have to inhabit the shadows into which society had hemmed them.

One of the most arresting parts of the documentary is its treatment of Dan White, the supervisor who murdered Milk and then-Mayor Moscone over the latter’s refusal to reinstate him as a City Supervisor. The ensuing trial was seen by many to be farcical, with White’s conviction on manslaughter rather than premeditated murder on account of the defense’s case that White had been suffering from depression at the time, as evidenced by his uncharacteristic consumption of junk food – the infamous “Twinkie trial” defense. White’s light sentence was decided by a jury who was swayed by his image as a small-town white boy brought low by circumstances outside his control, what many considered – and still consider today – a travesty of an indictment that demonstrated the lengths to which white privilege could extend. As a sober side-note, the documentary was released just after White was released from prison, five years into his seven-year sentence. Just two years later, White tearfully confessed to an SF homicide inspector that he had indeed premeditated the killings, and had not committed the crime in a depression-fueled delirium as had been the defense’s case. Soon after, he committed suicide. One wonders if the publicity brought about by the documentary’s success had a hand in that decision.

Incidentally, I watched this film on (what would have been) Harvey Milk’s birthday, surrounded by members of the LGBT community in San Francisco, in the Castro Theatre, in the heart of the city’s gay quarter. Throughout the screening the audience made their thoughts and feelings known at every turn. Every time Dan White came on screen, they hissed. Every time Milk, or one of the interviewees, made a pithy point, they clapped. For some reason, Diane Feinstein, one of the most liberal senators in Congress, got a smattering of disapproving hisses – probably because she refused to join in the city’s gay pride parade one year. The audience provided some contemporary texture, a depth to the documentary, showcasing in quite plain terms the indelible impact that Harvey Milk’s example, and indeed, martyrdom, had left on the psyche of the collective LGBT community in San Francisco and elsewhere. To them, Milk was a saint, a consecrated hero, San Francisco’s best-loved icon, the prophet who showed his flock the way to live. That viewing experience in the Castro was a visceral testament to that sentiment.

I give this documentary: 4.5 out of 5 pocket bullets


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