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The Times of Harvey Milk
The Pride of San Francisco
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) hits us immediately with the horrified shock of a crowd learning of the deaths of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. It is palpable. One member of the crowd exclaims: “Jesus Christ!”
This 1984 Acadamy Award winner for best documentary is a gem. It is a salve for the age that we’re living in currently. It is a portrait of a man who believed in the better nature of humans; the oneness of man. He didn’t care about how it came off. This film is a reminder that politics, at its best, is about getting out into the street and engaging with people, understanding their struggles, and earnestly trying to help.
Narrated by a somber and at times moving Harvey Fierstein, the film ushers us through Milk’s youth and journey from Long Island to San Francisco, where at age 47, on his fourth attempt, he was elected to San Francisco’s board of supervisors. As one interviewee puts it in the film, in regards to seeing the first openly gay city official in the United States: “You were happy for Milk, but you were really happy for yourself because it felt like in some way you won.”
What ensues is a portrait of a man who strives, as another interviewee puts it, to not only advocate for Gay rights but for the rights of any minority that may be a victim of discrimination. Elderly, Asians, people with disabilities; it didn’t matter what group you identified with; Harvey Milk was going to use the levers of government to advocate for you. At one point, Milk is fiercely standing up for a specific type of voting machine that will make it more accessible for Elderly and non-English speaking communities to vote, the most fundamental right for a functional society.
As anyone familiar with history may know, the good times are short-lived. The hard-won victories of Harvey Milk and progressive politicians are met with the thundering blowback of conservatives and the “moral majority.” California Senator John Briggs proposed legislation, California Proposition 6, making it possible to remove openly Gay professionals, such as teachers, from their jobs. The blowback against progressive gains went national, with media portraying San Francisco as a “garbage dump” of humanity. (Much of this film will resonate with current residents of the city by the bay who are familiar with national coverage of the city.) The parallels here-in are disturbingly similar to the current attempts by conservative elected officials to strip women and trans people of rights. As Milk supporters tell an older Asian couple when they’re campaigning against Prop 6, stripping one group of their rights makes it much easier to remove rights from the next group…
First-hand accounts and interviews, paired with news footage from this era of San Francisco’s history paint a detailed picture of the city, the politics, and the greater national picture. It’s a portrait of a city that feels simultaneously familiar and lost to time. My own experience of living in San Francisco is not entirely reconcilable with the San Francisco of the ’70s presented: To live in San Francisco today is to know a sort of isolation created by the influx of tech workers (myself among them) and modern gold-seekers, rather than a sense of community born from the solidarity of “outcasts.”
In the trial of Harvey Milk and George Moscone’s killer, we see the insidious ways that justice is chipped away from minority groups: we learn that the jury selection process excludes Gay people, minority residents, or “anyone that might have a different political point of view.” How can justice prevail when the system responsible for punishing a crime empathizes primarily with the aggressor and, least of all, with the victim? The question remains.
The Times of Harvey Milk
Directed by Robert Epstein and Edited by Robert Epstein and Deborah Hoffman
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
Happy Pride! What are you watching this month to celebrate? It’s time to revisit that movie you loved but weren’t sure you’d ever come back to; for me, I was considering giving Milk a re-watch but opted instead to visit the documentary from 1984. As always, at the risk of sounding like paid advertising for the Criterion Channel, you can give them a trial run or even grab a subscription to watch this film. It’s worth it and, in my humble opinion, essential historical viewing for residents and SF enthusiasts.
Something I didn’t know before watching this film: George Moscone, the 37th Mayor of San Francisco, introduced district elections in the city. This allowed districts to elect their representatives rather than reps having to run in the city-at-large. In turn, this paved the way for Milk’s election. Clearly, this strategy worked, as the board to which Milk was elected also included the first Black and first Asian board member in the city's history. San Francisco still votes in this way today.
A very special guest recommendation is coming next week; stay tuned!