How often does a documentary film arrive on the scene, receive an Academy Award for best feature documentary, and inspire a docudrama of its story nearly twenty-five years later? The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) has accomplished such a feat in an impactful way by focusing upon its historical subject matter of a local San Francisco politician by the name of Harvey Milk.
According to his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions that The Times has been presented with a biased viewpoint. The particularly biased stance is apparent, according to his claim, since it does not include a single interview from any of the members of the sitting jury who had sentenced Harvey Milk’s murderer with a lenient punishment of five years in jail (source, Paragraph Eight).
This particular statement in Ebert’s review may possibly strike its reader as a catalyst that might turn the film into a perceived falsity as a truthful document of events. Despite the lack of an interview with any of the former members of the jury may not be a relevant issue for the film’s approach to its topic.
The director of the documentary, Rob Epstein, mentioned in a short essay that he wanted to focus upon Harvey Milk’s rise to a position on the board of supervisors, as well as his campaign against Proposition 6 (of 1978). However, during the process of researching the material about the campaign against the proposition his focus was drawn more to Harvey Milk.
In Epstein’s viewpoint, Harvey was a person with a unique talent for publicity and good humor. His focus was quickly drawn away from the events of the campaign and toward the career of an iconic political figure. Harvey Milk’s eleven months in office has not only marked a turning point in American politics, but his premature death has created waves in the realm of equal civil rights throughout the country.
Epstein admits that when he began pulling the film together “the challenge became how to make a film with the immediacy of cinéma vérité, but one that is told in retrospect.” The final cut of the film includes several interviews that were accumulated from newsreel footage filmed by local television stations, along with the retrospective interviews that he had filmed throughout the years after Harvey’s death.
Each one of the people that Epstein had interviewed was someone who had either personally knew Milk at one point during his career, such as his campaign manager (Anne Kronenberg), if not directly affected by his work in political office as a district supervisor.
With a viewing of the final cut of The Times, there are a few bits and pieces of the cinéma vérité movement available in the film, as was originally intended by Epstein. The only relevant material within the picture that signifies the importance of the viewer experiencing the story first hand would be the newsreel footage from the local television stations. An emotionally stirring case-in-point would be the raw footage from the press conference that depicts an emotionally shaken local politician Dianne Feinstein as she is standing in front of a slew of microphones to report the death of Mayor George Moscone and district supervisor Harvey Milk.
As an addendum to any missing pieces of information not fortuitously told in the interviews or with the newsreel footage, there are few sections of spoken narration, voiced by actor Harvey Fierstein, to fill in the gaps. At the start of the film, Harvey Fierstein’s voice introduces the audience to the story of Harvey Milk by informing them of his death and of the last will and testament that was recorded on to an audio tape the year before.
However, with the combination of the newsreel footage, photographs, and film footage that Epstein had shot the viewer is truly transported to the last year of Milk’s life. The viewer would never have been as familiar with Dan White if they were not exposed to the detailed television news interview in which he overtly recommends a game of softball between his district and Milk’s district as a way to settle political debates.
Despite the large supply of footage and interviews that were seen in the final cut of the documentary, some interviews were not included. Milk’s lover, Scott Smith, appears as a minor figure toward the start of the film, but director Rob Epstein had a film reel of an interview with Smith that was just never included.
In order to use the interviews that were shot by Epstein effectively in the structure of the film, he had to rely on using the stories told by the interviewed subjects as the primary source of narration while using flashbacks to the archive footage and photographs that has eloquently been described so far. Three people who were interviewed in the documentary have served as a strong contribution to the story’s center point of narration: Anne Kronenberg (campaign manager), Tom Ammiano (a homosexual schoolteacher), Tory Hartmann (political consultant), and Jim Elliot (heterosexual unionized auto machinist).
Within each of the interviews, the people were describing their own personal accounts of the events that unfolded during the course of Harvey’s political career and personal life the words are highlighted with newspaper headlines, photographs, and film footage from numerous different sources to punctuate the validity of the events that had unfolded. Each person has a completely different life experience associated with Harvey Milk.
Some of the most intriguing material that was utilized in the documentary was the television news packages that have served the purpose of historical chronicler of events and casual social observer of the community. One particular news package was produced shortly after Dan White had murdered his fellow council members in whom a few of his neighbors were interviewed by news reporter George Dusheck about his behavior. “He was an all American boy as far as I was concerned,” says neighbor A.V. Cook. The package dares to consider the question of explaining how an average white American person from a middle class neighborhood would dare commit such a heinous crime.
Moreover, with newsreel footage such as the one that has just been described, the viewer is presented with the little extra punctuation on the story that would hold the same weight as the words spoken during a retrospective interview.
Editor’s Note: Shortly after publishing this essay I had received an e-mail from Jerry Pritikin, who is a gay rights activist and retired freelance photographer. Here is the copy of the e-mail that I have read:
I was disappointed that I was not asked about my images of Harvey, and those times. I was an openly gay man who outed myself nationally in May of 1977, when I created the “ANITA BRYANT’S HUSBAND IS A HOMO SAPIEN!” T-Shirt. Several weeks later, my image taken on 6/7/77 of Harvey Milk t an impromptu march in response to Anita Bryant’s led vote to overturn a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. Associated Press used it on their wire service… and introduced Harvey nationally as a gay spokesperson 5 months before he was elected as the country’s first openly gay male politician. That image is featured in other documentaries, and Randy Shilts “THE MAYOR OF CASTRO STREET” and other books. My footnote to gay history see [this page]. That site, “The Castro,” is a truer version of those times than the documentary. If you have time visit my blog [jerrypritikin.blogspot.com].— Jerry Pritiki
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2 thoughts on “The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)”
Nice review, I particularly enjoy your discussion on bias in documentary. I'm actually doing a documentary marathon over at my blog right now and will be writing about The Times in a few weeks. I'm pretty excited for it. Great work!
Though the film is clearly biased, let’s not forget that “reality has a liberal bias.”
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