The Times of Harvey Milk: The Politician Who Changed LGBT History Forever

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Harris Montgomery, BA Film Studies student

In honour of LGBTQ+ History month starting today, third-year BA Film Studies are providing a series of weekly reviews that capture this year’s theme of Behind the Lens, celebrating LGBT+ peoples’ contribution to cinema. First up is Harris Montgomery’s review of The Times of Harvey Milk(1984).

Screenshot from The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein, The Criterion Collection, 1984. [Image description: Harvey Milk stands in front of a microphone smiling with one arm raised in the air and another arm around the shoulder of another person who is also smiling]

As a gay director at the start of his ground-breaking career in LGBT documentary, Rob Epstein felt a connection to the events told in The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). The film shows a personal approach to the political career and untimely death of one of America’s most influential figures. Screened at the New York Film Festival, the documentary gained acclaim from audiences and critics alike, winning Best Documentary Feature at the 1985 Academy Awards. In 2012, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Acclaimed actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein narrates the film, offering a comforting quality that heightens the joys and brings emotion to the lows. Opening with Milk’s life before politics, the film provides a ‘behind the scenes’ look into his job as a camera shop owner and the discovery of his homosexual identity. The interjection of interviews from colleagues and friends hammers this personal dimension home and conveys Milk’s down-to-Earth nature.

The film also provides an intricate picture of Milk’s political work, ranging from his election as council member in San Francisco and the efforts made to ensure Castro was a safe space for the LGBT community, to the hugely significant efforts that blocked The Briggs Initiative, a protocol that would have seen homosexuals banned from careers within the education sector. The editorial choice to bookend the film with Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone’s assassinations rightfully paints Milk as a beacon of light amidst some truly dark times for the US. However, the film’s closing moments, in which Fierstein’s narration is replaced with Milk’s own voice, reminds its audiences not to dwell on his life’s tragic end, but to celebrate the political career of one of the most honest, true, and hardworking figures in the history of American politics.

Further viewing

Milk (2008) – Dir. Gus Van Sant

Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977) – Dir. Rob Epstein

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