The Times of Harvey Milk: Making History

In 1985, deep into the twelve-year reign of the Reagan-Bush administration, Rob Epstein mounted a Hollywood stage with Richard Schmiechen, both men resplendent in tuxedos. Epstein was only twenty-nine years old. The director had just made history, with producer Schmiechen, by winning the first Oscar for an openly gay film—and would do so again by thanking his partner in his acceptance speech. Some twenty-five years later, Epstein would be part of history once more, this time when he entered the East Room of the White House for a ceremony at which President Obama awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harvey Milk.

A truly great documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) has exceeded its original category with the passage of time. It is now an archive, a political case study, urban geography, melodrama, and cathartic expiation, and has inspired both an opera and a theatrical feature, Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008). The Times of Harvey Milk is a dazzling exemplar of that defunct technology 16 mm celluloid, the predigital choice for all alternative documentary and feature movements in America. With its astute roundup of news clips, archival materials, and original footage, and careful casting of veterans of the era for context, all orchestrated to capture the emotions of such signal events as the candlelight procession on the night of the assassinations and the White Night riots on the day of the verdicts, The Times of Harvey Milk has become a film that defies any expiration date. It is the rare documentary that speaks to our time, its own, and the intervening years with equal fluency.


Rob Epstein was just a kid when he landed in San Francisco, drawn from the East Coast by the siren song of the gay mecca in its prime. Answering an ad for a “nonsexist gay man,” with no experience required, “just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit,” placed by Peter Adair, the gay guru of activist film, Epstein stumbled into filmmaking, the profession that would dominate the rest of his life. As the youngest member (at just nineteen) of Adair’s collective Mariposa Film Group, he participated in making Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977), the first feature documentary on the lives of gay men and women in the United States.

Freshly hooked on documentary as a way to shape perceptions of his community and its issues, Epstein began working with his mentor, Adair, to find the next story. They clearly had a political sixth sense, for in the midst of a celebratory city still high on its own utopian promise—with Jerry Brown as California’s governor, Jimmy Carter in the White House, and George Moscone as San Francisco mayor—the pair smelled a backlash. Indeed, that was the era when the culture wars were beginning, when the right and the left were in open battle for the heart of America, searching for its identity in the wake of Vietnam and the Nixon impeachment. They began working on a short documentary about the fight over the Briggs Initiative, a statewide proposal to ban gays and lesbians from public school classrooms, in blatant imitation of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in Florida. Epstein noticed that the most fearless, outspoken voice being raised against state senator John Briggs’s Proposition 6 was that of a charismatic neighborhood character, gay gadabout, and newly elected city supervisor, camera shop owner Harvey Milk. So, with Adair’s blessing, Epstein decided to set off on his own, with new energy, borrowed gear, a tape recorder, or sometimes just a friend with a still camera, in pursuit of the pied piper of the Castro.

Milk’s election in 1977 was a historic one, his victory sealed by his not only rallying the gay and lesbian vote for mainstream politics for the first time but also allying his constituency with other outsiders: ethnic and racialized communities long denied representation, unions and trade interests never before on the same side as gay groups (thanks to the unifying Coors beer boycott), senior citizens feeling squeezed out of their own city. His triumph caused delirium in the Castro District he’d done so much to build, but it also made a big difference in the political balance of the city at large.

One year later, in November 1978, Milk led “No on 6” to victory, and his future looked limitless. No spoiler alert necessary: three weeks after that, he was dead. Epstein and editor Deborah Hoffmann made the decision to give the viewer this information right up front, perhaps in emulation of the great French director Robert Bresson’s tactic of “giving away” the plot in the title so that the audience concentrates on what is really important. Here, then, the announcement of Harvey Milk’s and Mayor George Moscone’s deaths by Dianne Feinstein, president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, serves to put the viewer on notice that their assassinations by fellow supervisor Dan White should be seen as the starting point of the film, not a defining revelation.

For Epstein and his crew, the making of the film was itself a series of revelations, decisions, and strategic revisions. They started out in the heyday of direct observational cinema, recording street actions and in homes, offices, and bars to capture history in the making. When Dan White entered a back window of city hall with a gun, he effectively remade their film. No longer would this be a grassroots documentary chronicle. It became something more momentous. It would be both elegy and analysis, eulogy and argument, a magisterial summing up of what had gone right and wrong. By 1984, Epstein and Schmiechen knew they held a time capsule of hopes and dreams and harsh truths in their hands. In the end, The Times of Harvey Milk was transformed into a rite by which the gay and lesbian (not yet LGBTQQ) community of the 1980s and a larger public could reflect upon an era, incorporate a trauma, and find a way to settle emotions instead of scores.


That’s not the kind of work usually performed by documentary. The Times of Harvey Milk enacts the emotional labor of melodrama in its documentary structures, forestalling closure, visiting and revisiting key points, locating wisdom in a chorus of voices, even orchestrating its massive street scenes through editing as masterfully as if they’d been staged by some brilliant choreographer up above, wings bowed in recognition.

There is much to note in how The Times of Harvey Milk achieves its powerful effect: the emotional punch of Hoffmann’s editing, the dignified fervor of composer Mark Isham’s score, the guiding hand of Schmiechen’s producing, the empathy generated by Harvey Fierstein’s instantly recognizable vocal intonations, the restrained narration written by journalist Judith Coburn and novelist Carter Wilson, and the multiple talents of the leader of the pack, Epstein. Yet there’s something ineffable that remains, unnamed but deeply felt. Why has the film stayed with its original publics and found ever newer ones, grown in power, continued to shape perceptions and revivify history for the generations that have followed?

Harvey Milk is, of course, a central reason. Milk knew even then that he was making history, and forging a legacy, and hoofed for the footlights to illuminate. He recorded his last will and testament to be played in the event of his assassination. He was captured for posterity by news cameras while campaigning for supervisor and fighting against Proposition 6. He presided with gusto—usually with his lover, Scott Smith, by his side—over the Castro Street Fair. Milk’s gift to future documentarians was this treasure trove of archival footage of himself in action, immersed in the crowd, witty and charismatic, lovable, tragic, felled in his prime like some Shakespearean hero. But other documentaries about charismatic figures have failed. Subject is no guarantee of success. It’s how the filmmaker treats the topic that makes the difference between greatness and mere fealty.

One element of the artistry in The Times of Harvey Milk is the careful selection of the eight interviewees, culled from dozens with whom Epstein spoke during extensive video investigations. If Epstein had learned during his apprenticeship with the Mariposa Film Group how to conduct and sequence master interviews, here he improved on those lessons. Eight only, drawn from all constituencies, offer themselves up as witnesses, mourners, and figures of empathy for a future audience broadly drawn and widely imagined. Their testimonies are key to the film’s emotional power: as they recount the events of 1976–1979 and work through making sense of them on-screen, these witnesses make Milk’s humanity manifest, and model for us all the stages of grief, from bereavement and anger to grudging acceptance. Those interview sequences become a means of scoring the film visually: richly lit and composed figures of generosity and believability testifying to the man who was Harvey Milk.

Consider, too, the title: not just a phrase, it’s a clue to the film’s deepest meanings and qualities. The Times of Harvey Milk works its magic upon the viewer by reaching beyond the limits of biography. Made acutely aware of their mission by the events to which the film bears witness—the birth of a gay and lesbian community, assassination, a grief-soaked outpouring of monumental remembrance, a miscarriage of justice, reactive rage, and later reflection—the filmmakers offer up a portrait of a time and a place, not just a man. And they enshrine a people who responded to tragedy with a sublime collectivity that continues to resonate across the decades.

Indeed, The Times of Harvey Milk offers an enduring primer on how social change takes place and can transform an environment, in spite of the violence it may provoke. It shows the cultural life of San Francisco, forever changed by the act of hatred that claimed its leaders, a city of neighborhoods and political alliances, a laboratory for ideas. (Movingly, it also captures a newly invigorated community during the brief moment after its creation and before the arrival of AIDS, which would decimate its ranks.) New generations study The Times of Harvey Milk to learn not only about Milk but also about political activism at its best.

Epstein and his team were able to conceptualize the film so clearly in part because they pioneered a new form of grassroots fund-raising and distribution: house parties held coast to coast with previews of footage, soliciting reactions, building momentum, gleaning the needs and wishes of a broad constituency and transforming it, in the process, into a future audience. This kind of give and take, with themes and subjects conceived and pursued in collaboration with diverse communities and cocreators, would become a hallmark of Epstein’s approach.

Later, inspired by Milk confidant Cleve Jones’s invention of the quilt project to commemorate those lost to AIDS, Epstein made a documentary about it, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), codirected with Jeffrey Friedman, the creative partner with whom he’s made every film since. Epstein won the Academy Award for that film as well, with Friedman, and he and Friedman went on to make, among other projects, the documentaries The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Paragraph 175 (2000), the latter examining the persecution of gays and lesbians in the Third Reich. (Only recently have they deviated from their documentary habits, with the 2010 Howl, a stunningly successful work of experimental fiction dedicated to the Allen Ginsberg poem and starring James Franco as the poet.)


In San Francisco today, there’s a bust of Harvey Milk in the second-floor rotunda of city hall. In 2008, when gay marriage became (briefly) legal and the demand far outstripped the capacity of the building’s official facilities for civil ceremonies, getting married with Harvey became the favorite choice. From May to November, thousands of couples mounted those stairs and posed for photos. When Sean Penn insisted he’d star in Milk only if it were shot in San Francisco, and Gus Van Sant happily agreed, the streets of the Castro became a simulacrum of the 1970s, and survivors of those days came to pay homage and to march again for the cameras.

Focus Features celebrated Milk’s debut by premiering it at the Castro Theatre (its facade restored by the film’s location budget), and there was a chill in the October air as audience members realized they were watching the film very much on location, a feeling heightened by the after-party at city hall, the site of Milk’s death. A special exhibition at the public library showed childhood photos of Milk and ephemera from his personal life, while a temporary museum in a storefront on Castro Street displayed the suit he was wearing when he was shot, bloodstained and bullet-marked. A month later, when Proposition 8, the “gay marriage” veto, passed, many gay rights activists went back to Epstein and Schmiechen’s film (and to Van Sant’s) for pointers on organizing and coalition politics.

As documentary forms mutate amid the rush of new technologies and social networks of this millennium, The Times of Harvey Milk endures. It has never stopped showing: in movie theaters, festivals, and every consumer format that comes along. For one thing, it holds its status as the gold standard in how to structure documentary narrative to capture the essence of a man, a community, and a moment in time. But it is also a film that continues to reinvent itself, as new publics drill ever deeper into its sedimental layers of history, mystery, and emotional power to find new inspiration.

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