Monday, February 02, 2009


THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK is Rob Epstein's 1985 Oscar winning documentary about Harvey Milk - the first openly gay man elected to US high office, only to be assassinated by a jealous colleague a year later. It has been re-released to coincide with the success of Gus Van Sant's biopic, MILK.

The story is the same, but Epstein uses a wider time line. Epstein efficiently covers Milk's childhood and early adulthood - a succession of jobs that didn't quite fit. By contrast, Gus van Sant hits the ground running with Milk turning forty, coming out, and moving to the Castro with his lover to start a new life, almost falling into neighbourhood activism by mistake. Both the documentary and the film are very good at showing Milk's natural flair for politics - for cutting deals, for grassroots campaigning, and for the well-crafted photo op. MILK colours in the emotional background - the relationships. The documentary gives us more political intrigue and features some wonderfully candid interviews with people who worked with Harvey. He was fortunate to have such eloquent friends.

In both films, Milk's colleague Dan White is a rather shadowy figure. I think MILK gives us more of an insight into why White might have been at an emotional place where he could kill Harvey. By contrast, the documentary gives us the facts. And whereas MILK ends with Harvey's death, the documentary takes us through White's trial and the mockery of justice that was the Twinkie Defence.

Both film and documentary are moving, but the film is fundamentally uplifting while the documentary is more elegaic, focusing as it does on Milk's death and legacy. Here's interview Sally Gearheart on the candle-lit march that followed Harvey's assassination: "It was one of the most eloquent expressions of a community's response to violence that I've ever seen, and I think that we as Lesbians and Gay men, and all the straight people who where marching with us that night - and there were thousands - I think we said it. I think we sent a message to the nation that night about what our immediate response was - not violence, but a certain respect for Harvey and a deep... a deep... regret and feeling of tragedy about it, because Moscone had been our friend as well."

I suppose my one criticism of both the movie and the documentary is that Milk's opposition, the Christian right, come of as bigoted, unintelligent, inarticulate bogeymen. Not that I have any sympathy with their position, but a lot of people did, and it would have done Milk a better service to make his opponents flesh and blood so as to better understand his victory.

THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK was released in 1984 and played Berlin 1985. It won Best Documentary at the Oscars in 1985. It is currently on re-release at the ICA and will play Berlin 2009.

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