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Film / The Times of Harvey Milk

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"I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you... and you... and you... gotta give 'em hope. Thank you very much."
Harvey Milk

The Times of Harvey Milk is a 1984 documentary film directed by Rob Epstein and narrated by Harvey Fierstein.

It is about, yes, Harvey Milk (1930-1978). Milk, a gay man and an activist for gay rights, was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, becoming the first openly gay man elected to political office in San Francisco and quite likely the first openly gay man elected to any political office anywhere in the United States. During his brief time in office Milk helped pass a landmark gay rights measure in San Francisco, and was instrumental in the defeat of the Briggs Initiative, a California ballot proposal that would have banned homosexuals from teaching in California public schools.

Milk had been on the board for less than a year when he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, a conservative and a political opponent of Moscone and Milk. White infamously was acquitted of murder by a sympathetic jury, getting a manslaughter conviction that allowed him to be paroled after serving only five years.

Compare Milk, a 2008 biopic starring Sean Penn.


  • All Gays Love Theater: Yep. Before moving to San Francisco, Harvey worked in Broadway theater for a while. (The film does not mention it but he was an associate producer of Jesus Christ Superstar).
  • Brief Accent Imitation: Tom Ammiano, who speaks with the most Camp Gay voice imaginable, briefly drops his voice into a more stereotypically masculine register when he's talking about standard liberal opposition to the death penalty.
  • Bury Your Gays: A tragic Real Life example, as Harvey Milk is cut down at the height of his political career.
  • Downer Ending: Harvey Milk is murdered. Being as how this film was made in 1984, it obviously does not mention all the advances in gay rights that might make that less depressing.
  • Due to the Dead: The candlelight march from the Castro to City Hall that took place the night of Milk's murder, Nov. 27, 1978.
  • Election Day Episode: Two elections: Milk's triumphant election as Supervisor for district 5 in 1977, and the defeat of the Briggs Initiative in the 1978 midterms.
  • The Fundamentalist: John Briggs, who wants to deprive every gay teacher in California of their jobs. Another scene shows a Catholic minister delivering a virulently anti-gay sermon.
  • Gayborhood: The first one ever, possibly, as Harvey Milk was just one of many many gay people who descended upon the Castro district of San Francisco.
  • How We Got Here: The film starts with footage of a rattled Dianne Feinsteinnote  announcing the murders of Moscone and Milk by Dan White.
  • Jump Cut: Several of the interview segments have these, as do a couple of the stock footage interview sequences.
  • Karma Houdini: Dan White took his gun to City Hall, along with an extra ammo clip. He climbed through a window to avoid the metal detector. He shot George Moscone, who was refusing to give White his supervisor job back, to death. Then he reloaded before walking over to Harvey Milk's office and murdering him as well. Despite all this, a sympathetic jury believed the defense argument that White had not pre-planned the murders due to his diminished capacity and depression (one symptom cited was White's consumption of Twinkies, giving rise to the derisive term "Twinkie defense"). The film was made shortly after White was paroled in 1984, and mentions this, but was made too soon to mention White's suicide in 1985.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used heavily throughout the movie, with many many pictures being panned and zoomed. Possibly the most notable instance comes when a newspaper photo of Dan White is shown as his confession plays. As the audio clip goes on, the camera zooms in on White very very slowly, ending with a tight closeup on his eyes.
  • Narrator: Narrated by well-known gay actor and writer Harvey Fierstein.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Hoo boy. Dan White is the worst, but John Briggs, sponsor of an ugly anti-gay ballot measure, gets a lot of screen time.
  • Pride Parade: Harvey Milk marches in one. In the 1970s they were still rather novel. (The first one in San Francisco was in 1972.) Dan White tries to ban them.
  • Stock Footage: Lots and lots. The only original footage is the interview sequences.
  • Talking Heads: This time-honored documentary trope is employed here, as several of the people who knew Harvey Milk talk about his life and career.
  • Think of the Children!: As one of Harvey's friends points out in an interview, the Briggs Initiative was cleverly designed to play on nebulous fears of child molesters attacking schoolchildren, in order to deprive gays of their civil rights.