THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK is an interesting and at moments inspiring documentary about a notorious double killing that took place in San Francisco's city hall in 1978. One of the victims, Harvey Milk, was the USA's first openly homosexual elected official, a talented politician, a brave
and charismatic man, and, after his death, a nationwide symbol of gay pride and grass-roots activism. The film won an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature of 1984.
Born on Long Island, New York, in 1930, Harvey Milk becomes a Wall Street stock analyst after completing college and a tour in the Navy. In the 1960s he participates in anti-Vietnam War protests and moves to San Francisco, where he and his boyfriend open a camera store in a neighborhood that comes
to be known as "The Castro." On four occasions in the 1970s he stands for the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco's city council, and in 1977, at the age of 47, he is elected.
Although not a single-issue politician, Milk campaigns vigorously for gay rights and enjoys a major moment of triumph when Proposition 6, a referendum propounding the barring of homosexual teachers from California classrooms, is soundly defeated. Four days later, 32-year-old Dan White, one of
Milk's fellow supervisors, abruptly resigns his office, then almost immediately changes his mind. But it is too late; Mayor George Moscone does not reappoint him.
On the morning of November 27, 1978, White sneaks through a side window of city hall, walks into Moscone's office, shoots him, and then proceeds to Milk's office and assassinates him, too. That night, countless San Francisco citizens mass at city hall to mourn the slain officials.
When White's trial convenes five months later, most of the city expects it to result in at least a life sentence. Basing his case on the pressure of his job, his finances, severe depression, and too much junk food (the infamous "Twinkie Defense"), White is found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a
crime punishable by a mere four to 12 years in jail. After the verdict is announced, thousands of outraged citizens converge on city hall and a riot erupts. After serving five-and-a-half years, White is released from prison.
THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK tells its story almost exclusively through the use of dramatic newsreel footage and the testimony of eight friends and colleagues of Milk. Most engaging among the witnesses is the vivacious Tory Hartmann, a political consultant whose ebullient recollections of Milk,
relayed through laughter and tears, lend the film immediacy and pathos. Another key witness is Jim Elliot, a union man who tells how his anti-minority prejudices, particularly against homosexuals, were radically abridged by his association with Milk. Milk himself emerges as a very likable and
sympathetic figure who, though fully aware that an assassin might end his life at any moment, chose to conduct his affairs with a minimum of self-important pomposity and a maximum of high-spirited optimism.
THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK succeeds by latching onto a good story and allowing it to speak for itself. Although the film might have benefited from a bit more research into the private lives of Milk and White, the social story it tells is interesting and important enough to stand on its own. In
addition to being a study of grass-roots politics, THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK is also an example of it; its end credits list dozens of individuals and groups who contributed to its funding.
In the movie, Elliot speculates that had White killed only Moscone, a heterosexual, the all-heterosexual jury would have handed down a stiffer sentence. It is remotely possible that White himself came to feel that he deserved harsher punishment. Shortly after his (and the film's) release in 1984,
he committed suicide. (Profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1984
- Rating: NR
- Review: THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK is an interesting and at moments inspiring documentary about a notorious double killing that took place in San Francisco's city hall in 1978. One of the victims, Harvey Milk, was the USA's first openly homosexual elected official,… (more)