The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)


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Harvey Milk served only eleven months as the District 5 Supervisor of San Francisco but it can truly be said that his influence will outlive most politicians who have served a lifetime. In those eleven months, Milk got a gay rights ordinance through, successfully blocked the anti-gay teacher Proposition 6 and became a voice for a community that stretched out far beyond his home. In that eleventh month, on November 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by another former city supervisor, Dan White. Milk’s life was over but his voice and message live on.

At the start of the extraordinary documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, narrated by Harvey Fierstein, we see Dianne Feinstein standing in front of the press, stunned and ashen. She speaks words that so shock the crowd she has to stop midway until everyone settles down.

“As President of the Board of Supervisors, it’s my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”

Being told two important, popular political leaders have both been assassinated is shocking enough, but to then be told the assassin was another politician who had recently resigned is quite something else. The story of how that announcement came to be might have been the focus of a lesser documentary, as some filmmakers would have exploited the tension between Harvey Milk and Dan White while we watched helplessly as they bound headlong towards eternity. Director Rob Epstein with producer Richard Schmiechen and editor Deborah Hoffmann, however, take a different route. What they do instead is focus on why the loss of Harvey Milk was simply incalculable, as well as unbearable for so many people. It’s not about Dan White but about the atmosphere surrounding the late 1970s, when the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco finally got someone elected who stood for them, and everyone else. A time when a mayor was in office who believed that the diversity of the people and cultures in San Francisco were what a city was built on, not its downtown industry. And so, when we arrive at the same footage again near the end of the documentary, we understand the loss far too well.

We meet the people changed by Harvey Milk. People from the neighborhood, people from other community groups, people from different walks of life. We meet his aide first, Anne Kronenberg, who talks about meeting him at the Castro Camera shop he opened after moving there from New York. We meet Tom Ammiano, a school teacher directly affected by Milk’s hard work in office. We meet Sally Gearhart, a close working ally of Milk and advocate for gay rights. We meet Henry Der, Executive Director of the Chinese for Affirmative Action. And we meet Jim Elliot, an auto machinist and stalwart blue collar working man. All of them speak openly about the journey they took with Harvey, and how he changed their lives.

The last one I mentioned, Jim Elliot, is perhaps the most effective advocate for Harvey Milk’s power of persuasion. Elliot only heard of Milk because his union decided to endorse him. At the meeting someone brought up that Milk was gay. Elliot openly admits he didn’t think much about gay people. He uses derisive language to describe how he thought about them. Then he met Milk. He talked to him. Most importantly, he noticed that Milk listened to what he said and actually took the actions he said he was going to take when promised. Milk said from the outset he wasn’t there to represents only gay residents of his district but every resident and his action made good on his words. By the end, Elliot states clearly that a lot of people are still bigoted against gay people (this was 1984 and, sadly, the statement still holds true) and that he was himself because he had never bothered to think about gay people as people at all. After meeting Milk and working with so many other people in the Castro community, his views changed.


Of course, Milk did represent the gay community at large as well because he understood quite intimately the uphill battle they faced. Back then, there was no LGBT awareness. You were lucky if you could get someone to agree that lesbians and gay people even existed in a natural state and weren’t just heterosexuals going against the grain because of a diseased mind. One tale is recounted of President  Jimmy Carter’s sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, an evangelist who told Milk she could cure him of his homosexuality but first he’d have to convert to Christianity. Needless to say, Milk declined the offer.

That mindset was far more prevalent at the time and when State Senator John Briggs put an initiave on the ballot, Proposition 6, to disallow gay and lesbian teachers from employment in California public schools, it looked like it might pass muster with voters. But Harvey Milk, advocating tirelessly for the people of the state, let them know that Proposition 6 was just one step removed from telling other people that they can’t teach either. Once you allow something like that to pass, you’re going down a path you might later regret. By the time the proposition went to vote, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were all on the record against it. It lost by a whopping 18 points.

Watching Milk work the process shows his great talent for making sense by talking to people on a personal level. And when doing that, he regularly displayed a wry sense of humor that often disarmed people. Disputing the notion that someone becomes that which surrounds them, he noted that his parents, friends, teachers and co-workers had been clearly heterosexual, so for that logic to stand, so should he. Then he disputes the claim that teachers are such strong role models that a gay one would surely turn students gay. If this were true, he says, think of how many nuns we’d have in this country.


The Times of Harvey Milk won the Oscar for Best Documentary for 1984 and it still feels urgent today. It takes a couple of years in one man’s life and shows how it affects millions of others over decades. The documentary is more than just a tribute to Milk, it’s a tribute to Mayor George Moscone, to Sally Gearhart, to Henry Der, to Tom Ammiano, and to everyone who continued the fight of Harvey Milk, the fight for rights, inclusion and acceptance. Over thirty years later, it’s still one of the best documentaries on any subject you’re likely to see. And still one of the most important.

Greg Ferrara

1 Response The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : June 9, 2017 8:18 pm

It’s an excellent documentary and deserving winner of its Oscar.
Good article about a good person. We need more politicians like him; politicians who represent all the people and willing to stand up for them and work for what’s right.

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