Archive for November 1, 1984

The Times of Harvey Milk

November 1, 1984

The money shot comes about half an hour before the end of The Times of Harvey Milk. In response to the shocking murders of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, the grieving masses of Milk’s district march down Castro Street holding candles. 50,000 people, marching quietly. “Harvey would’ve loved it,” says an associate in the film.

The sight is breathtaking and sadly ironic; it took Milk’s death to bring so many together. Later, Dan White, Milk’s fellow supervisor, who killed Milk and Moscone, was brought to trial and found guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder. This time, the masses were not so calm; the resulting White Night Riots caused over a million dollars’ worth of damage. Milk would not have loved this, and he would’ve been the first to try to quiet the rage.

“Harvey Milk” is an almost comically bland name, calling forth an image of a dorky man sipping a glass of harmless white stuff. Milk seemed to live his life in opposition to his name. He was a firebrand, though not so radical as to alienate the hetero whitebreads whose support his movement needed; he was a skilled politician, opening a rhetorical umbrella under which oppressed people of all types — blacks, Asians, women, the elderly, the disabled — could assemble and be acknowledged. The Times of Harvey Milk, which won 1984’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, includes plenty of footage of Milk at work, and if he wasn’t 100% sincere in his rhetoric, he sure stayed on-message pretty well. There’s no reason to believe he wasn’t sincere, though the movie touches lightly, if at all, on Milk’s flaws (a temper, a certain rigidity).

You need to see the movie (and, perhaps, read Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street) to understand the true impact Milk had, not only locally but nationwide; you need to see the people who knew him and the people who never met him speaking fondly of his example and his achievements. I liked what I saw of Harvey Milk, but the movie itself, a typical early-’80s bit of talking-heads hagiography, hasn’t aged very well. Aesthetically, it’s not much, except for the pleasure of its narration, read by Harvey Fierstein in his familiar theatrical growl. The subject commands more respect and affection than does the movie itself.

Partly, the film falls victim to the inevitable structure of a story of an assassination: roughly halfway through the 88-minute running time, Milk is abruptly removed from the picture, and the remainder is about the aftermath and about Dan White. (A later documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, had the same problem.) We may rebel against this structure, feeling that Milk deserves more screen time than his opaque assassin. Why did White do it? The consensus is that he was unhinged and dangerously depressed — he’d resigned from his job, then wanted to change his mind, but Moscone wouldn’t have it. (Mike Weiss’ 1984 book Double Play does a thorough job of analyzing White’s motives, which went beyond his lawyer’s infamously ridiculous “Twinkie defense.”) So White killed Moscone, then went to Milk’s office and killed him too, because he felt Milk and Moscone were in cahoots to ruin White’s career.

The problem with a movie about Harvey Milk is that it has to end with all this conjecture about the man who snuffed him out. What the movie doesn’t tell you (but the extra features on the 2-disc DVD do) is that White, after serving five years of his seven-year sentence and being paroled in 1984, killed himself in 1985. So justice was served in a rough way; White had to live with himself, and he couldn’t. Audiences for the film in 1984, though, were left with the knowledge that White was free out there somewhere. The movie ends with Milk’s “hope” speech, but again, the structure works against that as well.

Reviewing the movie on eFilmCritic in 2005, Aaron West supposed it was “maybe not as relevant today as it was in 1984.” Things, of course, have changed even since 2005; as I write this, California’s gays are still reeling from the passage of the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8. Watching Milk in action in this movie, I kept wondering if Prop 8 would’ve had a chance in hell if Milk were still alive. He’d have drawn people together, appealed to their sense of fairness, and reached out beyond the gay community to everyone who might otherwise have pulled the lever for Prop 8. It’s all well and good to keep hope alive, but — as Milk himself says in the film — you can’t live on hope alone.