The Times of Harvey Milk: Criterion Collection
March 21, 2011
With the release of Gus Van Sant’s superb biopic Milk (2008), which featured an Academy Award-winning performance by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, there was renewed interest in the inspiring human rights activist and one of the earliest openly gay American politicians elected to public office. Unfortunately, his life was cut tragically short when he was murdered by fellow politician Dan White in 1978. Six years later, director Robert Epstein and producer Richard Schmiechen released the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) to critical acclaim and Oscar glory as the film won Best Documentary Feature. The Criterion Collection has given this important film the deluxe treatment it so richly deserves.
The documentary begins on that horrible day when acting mayor Dianne Feinstein announced that San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot and killed by fellow supervisor Dan White. The film then takes us back to the early 1970’s and chronicles Milk’s rise from camera store owner to prominent gay rights activist in a span of only a few years. This is done through a mix of archival footage of Milk, Moscone and White with original documentary footage of those who knew them.
Milk initially became involved in local politics with his neighborhood and then expanded his scope to the rest of the city. He ran repeatedly for office and lost three times but kept getting more and more supporters each time. In 1977, he finally got elected to the Board of District Supervisors. It’s hard not to get caught up in the euphoria of Milk getting elected and standing up for what he believed in. The Times of Harvey Milk also sheds light on Dan White’s story and the way he came across in the local media – a clean-cut all-American guy, an idealist who did not adjust well to the political climate of city hall. We see what motivated him to kill Milk and Moscone and the subsequent aftermath – the court case and the resulting backlash to the lenient sentence he received for the murders.
Harvey Milk comes across as a very approachable man – intelligent, funny, well-spoken and very passionate about his beliefs. Like any savvy politician, he also knew how to work the media to his advantage. However, Milk started to make waves among conservatives, like White, when he began advocating gay rights and even got legislation in San Francisco passed. This is when the hate mail really started pouring in and friends of Milk were worried that someone might try to kill him at the Gay Day Celebration but he bravely participated in it.
There is incredible footage of the candlelight vigil in observance of Milk and Moscone’s death – thousands of people taking to the streets peacefully for miles and miles. It’s hard not to be moved by it and by the testimonials of people who were there. The Times of Harvey Milk is a powerful film and a sobering reminder of how much still has to be done to give equality to gays and lesbians. It is also a moving tribute to an inspirational figure who stood up and championed a cause that wasn’t easy but one that was right because it spoke up for the basic rights that should be afforded to everyone.
The first disc features an audio commentary by director and co-editor Robert Epstein, co-editor Deborah Hoffman, and photographer Daniel Nicoletta. They didn’t intend the documentary to be a biography about Harvey Milk but rather a reflection of the times in which he lived in. Epstein admits that he came to Milk late and was not a devotee of his causes back in the day. The participants offer all kinds of filming anecdotes, like how they got Harvey Fierstein to narrate the film, on this informative track.
Also included is a “Postscript” that features deleted footage of various subjects in the documentary and was intended to be in the conclusion but ultimately removed.
There is also a trailer.
The second disc features an interview with Jon Else, director of the UC Berkeley documentary program. He takes a retrospective look at The Times of Harvey Milk and mentions that a film about Milk’s life was considered almost from the moment he was killed. Else praises the documentary for refusing to do re-enactments or drawing attention to the filmmakers. He also draws attention to the aspect of local elections and how important it was to Milk’s story. Else speaks candidly and knowledgably as one would expect from a man of his expertise and experience.
“Two Films, One Legacy” takes a look at the documentary in relation to Gus Van Sant’s Milk film. The goal of both films was to get Milk’s message out to a mainstream audience. The documentary does a brilliant job of giving us the basics of Milk’s life and political career, while Van Sant’s film dramatizes it in a dynamic way. Filmmakers from both films talk about their respective takes on the man.
“Harvey Milk Recordings” is a collection of audio and video recordings of Milk and the events that influenced his activism.
“Director’s Research Tapes” are excerpts from interviews Epstein recorded with 40 people for the film while it was in pre-production. These are the people that didn’t make it into the final cut, including Milk’s longtime boyfriend Scott Smith. They all talk about their impressions of Milk and what he was like.
“From the Castro to the Oscars” features excerpts from its San Francisco premiere in 1984 and the acceptance speech the filmmakers gave at the Academy Awards. The former is a fascinating snapshot of the political and social climate of the time it came out.
“The Dan White Case” features a small collection of news clips documenting his political career as well as the aftermath of his trial. Also included are excerpts from a 2003 panel discussion with White’s attorneys Douglas Schmidt and Stephen Scherr and also deputy district attorney Jim Hammer. They recount the trial and how they went about defending White. They also give their impressions of the man.
There is an excerpt of a speech Harry Britt, the man who succeeded Milk as supervisor for his district, gave in 2003 in honor of the 25th anniversary of his death.
Finally, there is an excerpt from the Candlelight Memorial in 2003 where mayor Moscone’s daughter and Tom Ammiano, who knew and worked with Milk, speak passionately about the two men.