Remembering Harvey Milk on His Ninetieth Birthday

On Film / Features — May 22, 2020
The Times of Harvey Milk

Today—May 22, 2020—would have been Harvey Milk’s ninetieth birthday. Harvey was forty-five when I first met him in his camera store; I was nineteen. Harvey was murdered when he was just forty-eight, and I’m now sixty-five. While time marches on, Harvey will be forever forty-eight.

Reading filmmaker Matt Wolf’s recent thoughtful essay for Criterion inspired me to write about my own experiences as a participant in some of the very scenes Wolf cites from my film. Sometimes my role was activist, sometimes filmmaker, and sometimes both.

I moved to San Francisco from the east coast in 1975. I was nineteen years old, just coming out, and in search of something . . . someplace, still unknown to me. For sixty-five dollars, I purchased a “seat” on the Green Tortoise, an old Greyhound bus with seats removed and replaced with a wooden platform topped with foam rubber pads covered in Indian print bedspreads. The bus departed from Duane Street in lower Manhattan, then an industrial wasteland; five days later we arrived in San Francisco. The hippie underground railroad. 

Crossing the Bay Bridge at night upon arrival, seeing the city all lit up for the first time, I indeed felt like I was busing into Oz. For this boy who had never traveled west of Philadelphia, Dorothy was no longer in Kansas.

My first few months in San Francisco were occupied with doing various subsistence-wage jobs—I pierced ears at Beadazzled, a bead store at the cable car turnaround on Powell Street selling puka shell necklaces to tourists; did temp work for Grandma’s Helpers, a gay cleaning service; cater-waitered at conventioneer events with famed local stripper Carol Doda as the headliner. Imagining myself an artist in search of a medium, I took a couple of film classes at San Francisco State, where I made an experimental Super 8 mm film of my boyfriend bathing in a Victorian bathtub intercut with our cat cleaning herself sitting on a windowsill.

At about the same time I answered a classified ad for a production assistant in a local magazine. (This is how people actually found jobs back then.) The ad read: “we are seeking a non-sexist gay male to work on a documentary about gay lifestyles, no experience necessary, just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit.” And thus began my professional filmmaking career, setting the foundation for Wolf’s observations.

Behind the ad were filmmaker Peter Adair and his sister Nancy. For years Peter had been working on an idea to do a film about what it means to be gay in America circa the early 1970s, made from the perspective of gay and lesbian filmmakers in the early days of what was then called “gay liberation.” Four of us (Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Lucy Phenix, and myself) eventually joined Peter and Nancy, and together we six became the Mariposa Film Group, the entity responsible for making what would become the landmark 1977 LGBTQ documentary Word Is Out, a series of interviews with twenty-six men and women from across the United States about their experiences of being openly queer. It was shown in theaters and on PBS, a first.

For me, as a young person finding my way as a professional filmmaker and as a gay man, Word Is Out was the perfect synthesis of subject, medium, and community, and my three-year experience working on Word Is Out would inform and shape my approach to filmmaking over the next several decades.

Just as we completed Word Is Out in 1977, San Francisco activist and camera store owner Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first openly gay politician in California elected to any public office. Not coincidentally and on a parallel track, a backlash movement in response to the gains being made by “gay liberation” was also taking off, in the form of Anita Bryant’s antigay crusade based in Dade County, Florida, and a statewide ballot initiative in California called “the Briggs Initiative” (also known as Proposition 6), designed to ban gays and lesbians from working in public schools.  

While Word Is Out was about our coming to terms with being LGBTQ as individuals at a time when there was no support from society for us to do so, now our coming out was reverberating in the collective consciousness—and there were forces organizing to strike at the very heart of this new phenomenon. Briggs and Milk embodied this dialectical fight, and I saw an opportunity to make a film about this societal context as a follow-up to Word Is Out. So, while living through and experiencing these events as an eyewitness—Harvey’s election, the Briggs Initiative fight, Milk’s murder, the Dan White murder trial, and its aftermath—I somewhat naively made the claim that this was what I was going to do.  

In his essay, Matt Wolf insightfully writes about the “spirit of community” that infuses both Word Is Out and The Times of Harvey Milk. Nothing could be truer, and I’d like to cite some examples that support his intuitions. 

As a young, neophyte filmmaker, it was only because I found so much community support that I was able to make The Times of Harvey Milk over a five-year period. It began with an initial $1,000 grant from the “Harvey Milk United Fund” (then cochaired by Cleve Jones and Sally Gearhart), followed by a New York fundraiser hosted by my friend the film historian Vito Russo in a community gym with 500 people sitting cross-legged on the floor. At this incredible sold-out event, Vito introduced me to the “New York gay community,” and we showed a teaser reel I put together from what I had shot thus far, along with some of Vito’s choice Judy Garland performance clips from his private collection (very gay). It was at this sold-out grassroots event that filmmaker Richard Schmiechen became aware of the project. Soon thereafter Richard moved from New York to San Francisco to become producer of the film and my filmmaking partner. 

In his essay, Wolf cites one particular scene—President Jimmy Carter coming out against the Briggs Initiative—as illustrating the “sense of solidarity” of the time. Again, Wolf’s perceptions are spot on, and it was my own experience as a participant in some of these scenes that helped inform their historical value. In this scene—and at the very event I attended—at the end of a rally for Democratic candidates, Carter walks back to the microphone and says, “And I would like to urge everyone to vote against Proposition 6,” to an uproarious response. There is a backstory to my being there to witness this and to help get Carter to take a stand, all of which supports Wolf’s insight.

Knowing that Carter was coming to Sacramento for this campaign rally, Harry Britt, an activist friend of Harvey Milk’s (who would go on to become his successor on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors), organized a handful of us to take a bus from San Francisco to Sacramento, armed with placards, to get Carter to go on record as being “no on 6.” Gay activist and schoolteacher Tom Ammiano (who appears in The Times of Harvey Milk, prior to his becoming an illustrious politician in his own right) and I were among the handful who took the bus with Harry. At the end of Carter’s speech, placards in hand, we began shouting at Carter, “No on 6! No on 6! No on 6!,” as loud as this small group could muster. We got Carter’s attention, and in the film you can actually hear then-Governor Jerry Brown say to Carter on a hot mike, “Ford and Reagan have already come out against it, so I think it’s perfectly safe.” Carter then walks back to the microphone and says, “I urge everyone to vote no on Proposition 6!” A huge victory for this small ragtag bunch with cardboard placards.

A few weeks later, Proposition 6 went down to defeat. I was at the victory headquarters on Market Street in the Castro. Now I was both filmmaker and activist. I didn’t yet have any funding to pull together a full production crew—then, anything approaching a professional level meant expensive 16 mm film, a camera, and a Nagra sound recorder—but I did manage to get my hands on a decent audio recorder. With my friend the photographer Dolores Neuman taking still photos, we documented this historic night, eventually constructed as a key sequence within The Times of Harvey Milk. 

The recording from that night is one of the rare recordings of a Harvey Milk speech. The photo of me with Harvey was taken moments before the results were announced, right before he took to the stage to give that electrifying speech. My bearing witness to this historic moment as a participant helped inform its significance in the retelling.

Three weeks after this event, Dolores Neuman and I were putting together a presentation for my nascent film idea. We were taking a break when we heard on the radio that Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone had been shot and killed. I didn’t know what to do. My instincts led me right to City Hall. There I stood outside on the front steps with about a dozen others, Tom Ammiano right next to me, in total eerie silence—ultimately another “scene” that would become key to the film.  

From the steps of City Hall that morning, somehow, I found my way to Harry Britt’s apartment in the Castro, where I joined Harry and others in organizing a candlelight march in just a few hours. Forty thousand San Franciscans would march in silence from the Castro, down Market Street, and back to City Hall. I was one of the first to arrive at the Civic Center, now back on the City Hall steps, on this quiet, chilly late November night. There, up close, Dianne Feinstein, then President of the Board of the Supervisors and now Acting-Mayor, who just hours earlier had found Harvey Milk’s body, spoke with emotion yet strong resolve: “This city will not be rudderless.”

My sense of the project while we were making it, largely in retrospect even though the events were so recent, was that we were making a historical film. From a filmmaking perspective, the challenge, as it often is with such films, was to have that historical perspective while at the same time finding a way to tell the story as if in the present tense. A year after the assassinations, there was an anniversary candlelight march with as many people participating as the year before. Now I was better equipped to pull together a shoot, so I filmed this anniversary march with multiple crews (cinematographers Emiko Omori, Arthur Bressan, and Frances Reid were each behind a camera). In a sense, I was filming what I knew to be a “historical sequence” but as if in the present tense.

When Wolf touches on the spirit of community that informs The Times of Harvey Milk, these are just some of the events that come to my mind that help to illustrate his point. I could write chapters about the role of community involvement in the making of both Word Is Out and The Times of Harvey Milk, from fundraising efforts, to large work-in-progress feedback screenings, to thunderous premieres at venues like the Castro Theater. About how all along the way I was nurtured, supported, and encouraged by incredible activists like Gwen Craig, Bill Kraus, Harry Britt, Cleve Jones, Dick Pabich, Bob Hawk, Vito Russo, TV reporter Tony Russomano, and so many others who, I suppose, saw something in my commitment that gave them faith I might be able to tell the story that we all had lived.

And then there were the funders—from the hundreds of individuals who gave small donations at various fundraisers, to B. Ruby Rich, then an administrator at the New York State Council for the Arts—all of whom supported the project at a time when few outside of San Francisco even knew who Harvey Milk was—or me for that matter.

From left to right: producer Richard Schmiechen, Rob Epstein, and cinematographer Frances Reid. Photograph by Daniel Nicoletta.

And the community of fellow makers—my collaborators—who were just as committed as I was:  producer Richard Schmiechen, a man whose incredible moral and ethical compass kept me and our project on track, who died of AIDS a mere eight years after our film premiered; cinematographer Frances Reid who started working with me before we had any funding; brilliant coeditor Debbie Hoffmann; associate producer Greg Bex; assistant editor Tim O’Shea; researcher Bob Hawk; consultant Jeffrey Friedman (my filmmaking partner as of 1987); and so many others who passionately volunteered their time and expertise in key roles.

This community of supporters, funders, and makers propped me up, motivated me, and kicked me in the ass when necessary. And together we got it done on a budget of $300,000.

So, yes, the spirit of community that Wolf so rightly intuits permeates every aspect of both Word Is Out and The Times of Harvey Milk. And at this dark moment in time, when we all face the challenge of having to look deep within ourselves for how we might contribute to the greater good, rather than to the darker forces of human nature, I thank Matt Wolf for reminding me of this truth. 

Community. This is what Harvey Milk stood for over the course of his forty-eight years.

Rob Epstein, left, with Harvey Milk on November, 7, 1978, three weeks before Milk’s assassination. Photograph by Ron Peck.