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FILM REVIEW: The Times of Harvey Milk

Posted By Nicole Kurth, Lake Superior State University, Thursday, October 15, 2015

Inclusion & Equity Committee Film Review Series Presents:  “The Times of Harvey Milk”

By: Nicole Kurth | Lake Superior State University



In 1984, Director Robert Epstein carved out a truly great documentary titled: The Times of Harvey Milk. The film shows the lives and untimely deaths of both Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Milk was an openly gay San Francisco Supervisor for the newly created District 5, while Moscone was the Mayor. The two served for 11 months together before being fatally being shot in City Hall by another Supervisor – Dan White on November 27, 1978.


The film opens with the actual footage of acting San Francisco Mayor: Dianne Feinstein announcing the deaths of Milk and Moscone. The film then follows Milk as he grows up before our eyes through pictures while Harvey Fierstein narrates in his trademark voice. We follow Milk from his closeted existence as a gay man in New York to his pilgrimage with his boyfriend Scott out to the more accepting climate of San Francisco’s neighborhood known simply as the Castro. It was from this neighborhood, that Milk ran for the office of City Supervisor three times before finally winning on the fourth try in 1977. Milk was a master manipulator of good press coverage, and thanks to that line of thinking – there is plenty of archival footage, pictures and news articles that detailed his short, but important political career. (Milk wasn’t just a gay Supervisor, in fact as the documentary shows he had supporters including the elderly, Chinese and powerful worker’s unions.) Some of Milk’s important political victories included: the Coors Beer boycott, defeat of Proposition 6 – an attempt to fire any LGBT teachers from teaching in California public schools (and also any of their heterosexual supporters), a dog poop ordinance, and the birth of a LGBT community that saw for the first time that it had political power.


The entire time that Milk was in the political spotlight, he was aware of the possibility that he may be murdered at anytime because of who he was and what he stood for. (These thoughts were underscored by the several death threats he received while in the spotlight.) Due to these thoughts and constant reminders, Milk had the foresight to record his thoughts to be played only the event of his assassination. (Hearing Harvey’s actual voice speak from this tape in the film is sobering as he speaks in such an unaffected way.) After the assassinations are discussed in the film, the actual footage plays of the silent procession of 45,000 people holding a candlelight vigil for their slain Supervisor and Mayor the night of their deaths. The film goes on to cover former Supervisor Dan White’s trial almost a year after the assassinations and his eventual lenient sentence of voluntary manslaughter. This brought about violent gay backlash later that evening on May 21, 1979 – the night before what would have been Harvey Milk’s 49th birthday. The riots came to be known as the “White Night Riots” and they ended up costing the City of San Francisco hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.


This documentary is not just a film about a Supervisor and a Mayor being assassinated in the late 70s, it is also a film about the political and social climate of San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s. The film was based off of the book: The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by: Randy Shilts. This is a film where the viewer gets an intimate view of who Harvey Milk was and why he was an important figure not only in LGBT history, but also in our nation’s history. This film now serves as a historical archive and political study for future generations. The Times of Harvey Milk has also went on to inspire an opera and Gus Van Sant’s movie: MILK. Thanks to original film footage, key interviews from people that knew Milk, Moscone, The Castro and the political climate of the times, this film continues to shine anew over 30 years later. This is a film that will continue to ignore expiration dates as it has the ability to reach through the years to today’s new audiences while still connecting to the past with ease and grace that only a truly great documentary can attain.


I give this film a rating of 5 out of 5 stars. “The Times of Harvey Milk” is a wonderful resource for those looking to understand LGBT history and an excellent example of a political study. This film shows Harvey Milk as the regular guy he was and how he started a movement. There are so many lessons to be learned from this film. You can learn something new or take away new thoughts with each viewing. If you’re looking for a film to show to your students during LGBT History Month this October, this film is an excellent place to start! This film is a great starting point for starting dialog with students on the current status of LGBT rights in the USA and world at large. Its also a great film to discuss for politics and history. There are so many starting points and opportunities to connect with your students through the showing of this film. If you’re looking for a more in- depth look at Harvey Milk – please check out additional GLACHUO Equity and Inclusion Committee Reviews: MILK a movie about Harvey’s life and the book: The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by: Randy Shilts.



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Tags:  Harvey Milk  LGBT 

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