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Review: The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984)

The Times of Harvey Milk

Version watched: UK Criterion Collection Blu Ray

The Times of Harvey Milk is a documentary about the rise, election and subsequent assassination of gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, comprised of news and archival footage, and interviews with those who knew him, narrated by Harvey Fierstein. The decision to open the film with footage of the announcement outside San Francisco City Hall of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination is particularly powerful, the shock of the moment is palpable.

The film eloquently and comprehensively charts the political career of Milk, and the effect he had on his friends, and those he served, in his painfully all-too-short time in office. The interviews helped to paint a picture of Milk’s influence and character, and effectively rendered the realities of the plight of the minorities whose causes Milk championed. One interviewee, a straight white union leader in Milk’s district at the time, was notable for his forthrightness: although he used objectionable language and terminology at times, his honesty was admirable in admitting that, if he had not met someone like Harvey Milk himself, his bigoted views would have persisted. His journey towards acceptance of the gay community makes it clear how important it is to be open to others, to be empathetic towards their lived realities and willing to listen. Ignorance can be overcome.

Feelings of friendship, admiration and love give way to grief, first quiet and solemn, then righteously angry. This film made me angry too. I had heard of Harvey Milk before, and knew he had been assassinated, but had no idea about what happened afterwards. It was absolutely outrageous. That a film made in the 80s, about events that happened more than 40 years ago, can resonate so clearly and sincerely today, is testament to its power and quality.

I just hope that as a society we can move forward in the way Harvey himself had hoped: “If we learn from history, the struggle goes on. Eventually we will win. All the Governor has to do is turn the pages of history a little faster. ”

8/10

Film available to buy here.

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