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TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, THE (director/writer: Rob Epstein; screenwriters: Judith Coburn/Carter Wilson; cast: Harvey Fierstein (narrator), Tom Ammiano, Anne Kronenberg, Tory Hartmann, Jim Elliot, Henry Der, Jeannine Yeomans, Bill Kraus, Sally M. Gearhart, Harvey Milk; cinematographer: Frances Reid; editors: Deborah Hoffman/Robert Epstein; music: Mark Isham; Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Richard Schmiechen/Rob Epstein; New Yorker Films; 1984)
“Superb documentary about slain political activist Harvey Milk.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rob Epstein’s (“Paragraph 175″/”The Celluloid Closet”/”Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt”) superb documentary about slain political activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected politician in a large American city, was a winner of an Academy award for Best Documentary Feature. It’s narrated with great feeling by Harvey Fierstein; the narration is written by Judith Coburn. It uses relevant interviews, still photos, recordings and archival footage to tell its poignant story of hope and doom among those Milk fought for who were marginalized by the political mainstream.

In a no-nonsense straightforward way it chronicles the mercurial political path of the 48-year-old former Wall Street analyst Harvey Milk, a product of middle-class Jewish parents from suburban Long Island, who in 1970 at age 40, with his new younger boyfriend Scott Smith, came out of the closet as a liberated hippie and moved to San Francisco’s emerging gay Castro district with Scott and opened the Castro Camera Shop. Turning to political activism, Milk dubbed himself “the Mayor of Castro” and became known in the community as the one to see about gay business matters–even attracting the teamsters who arranged for him to boycott Coors beer in the Castro area. In 1973 Milk began an attempt to gain official political power through running as an unknown for political office and lost in his two bids for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and once for the California State Assembly, but continued to get more votes each time and gain more political savvy with each election (like dress conservatively in suits). Finally winning public office in 1977 as supervisor for the newly zoned District Five that covers the hippie area of Haight Ashberry and the gay Castro section. It was an election that brought cheer to the gay community, who had an official voice for the first time in San Francisco. Fearing a possible assassination because of the political and social climate of hate surrounding his election, Milk tape recorded his story in 1977 until his execution by fellow supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978–just eleven months after both were elected.

The distraught conservative normal “family values” White, who was only 31 and had already quit secure jobs with the police and fire departments, quits as supervisor. White was frustrated playing the political game he didn’t know how to play and the new family man was upset with the low salary of supervisors and that Proposition 6, advanced by California State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare), which sought to ban gays from teaching in California public schools, was defeated in a state-wide referendum with the help of the tireless Milk–someone whose values he opposed. White tries to get back his position after his letter of resignation, but he discovers that Mayor Moscone, under pressure from Milk, chooses to appoint someone else and in response goes to City Hall and slays in cold-blood his two political foes. His murderous act inspired an enormous outpouring from the gay community, who held a heartfelt peaceful 45, 000 strong candlelit vigil through the Castro district.

At the trial White’s crafty lawyer, Schmidt, devised a “Twinkie defense”, which used a junk food diet as evidence for White becoming unhinged. The lawyer got a jury that excluded gays and minorities and only seated White’s conservative working-class peers, to render a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. The light sentence received, perceived by the gays as a mockery of justice, at last got the anger of the gay community, who rioted. In 1984, after serving only five and a half years of a seven year sentence and receiving no psychiatric help while in the slammer, White was released and returned to his hometown where the tormented man, who supposedly always had an anger burning under his outward civility, committed suicide.

This even-handed but sympathetic to the cause documentary, told with a sense of urgency and contained outrage, ably points out that getting gays elected in America gives this oppressed community at least some hope that life is worth living. Thereby when Milk, the up-and-coming charismatic, instinctive politically, outgoing and pragmatically confrontational gay grassroots politician, on the inside track of running for mayor of S.F. is slain and his assassin is given only a slap on the wrist, the dreams of the entire gay community were crushed along with Milk. The repercussions of that assassination and its deep sense of loss, an important date in American history, still resonates today in the ongoing gay struggle for civil rights. Thirty years after the assassination, California passes Proposition 8 that prohibits gay marriage, which ironically comes on the eve of America’s historical election of its first black president.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”