The Times of Harvey Milk: A Documentary Portrait of Communities in Conflict

The Times of Harvey Milk: A Documentary Portrait of Communities in Conflict

Prologue: A Historic Struggle of Communities in Conflict

The acclaimed bio-documentary Milk, for which Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black won, respectively, 2009 Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Screenplay, was Director Gus Van Sant’s adaptation of the emotionally-powerful powerful The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature Film. I remember seeing The Times of Harvey Milk at a small East Village theater one wintry night in 1985, during a year that I was spending in New York City doing a pre-doctoral internship in clinical psychology. I also recall feeling emotionally stunned after leaving that theater, walking through the East and West Village just to remind myself how much more freedom gay and lesbian people seemed to enjoy since the previous years that I had lived in the village, during the mid-1960’s.

For generations of gay people, myself included, Harvey Milk has been a hero, martyr, inspiration and role model. As our country’s first openly gay elected official, Milk made a national impact after being elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, from his battles against a statewide proposition that would have made it illegal for gay people to be schoolteachers in California, to his call for gays and lesbians to come out of the closet. He once famously stated that, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Harvey waged an amazing, successful battle against Anita Bryant’s national anti-gay crusade in California, not knowing that it would be one of his last great acts before his tragic assassination. And if his assassination didn’t quite accomplish the lofty goal of opening every closet door, it certainly made a difference in the lives of millions of people.

Hollywood’s new re-telling of Harvey Milk’s story has made it possible for the impact of Milk’s life and his untiring community organizing efforts to have an effect not only upon straight audiences, but also on the new generations of young gay persons who might never have heard of him. And in particular, it brings into sharp relief Harvey Milk’s war against California’s Proposition 6, especially crucial for our present-day confrontations with California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage. California’s Proposition 6, more commonly known as The Briggs Initiative, was an initiative on the California State ballot on November 7th, 1978. The initiative would have banned gays and lesbians, and even possibly any person who supported gay rights, from working in California’s public schools. Hurting from recent civil rights losses in other parts of the nation, the gay and lesbian community quickly organized a statewide campaign against Proposition 6.

While Van Sant’s Milk reconstructs Harvey Milk’s successful organizing battle against Prop 6, it is no match for watching the actual Harvey Milk and his colleagues in their grassroots political action in The Times of Harvey Milk. A huge coalition of predominantly progressive community-based activists was formed into a campaign led by Gwen Craig and Bill Krause, who were appointed to their positions by San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, teacher (and later Supervisor of the SF Board of Supervisors) Tom Ammiano, activist Hank Wilson and many others. Rallying under the slogan “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!”, the campaign mobilized and quickly gained immense statewide momentum to defeat the initiative. Former Governor Ronald Reagan, later President, eventually moved to publicly oppose the measure. Gerald Ford, and (at the end of the campaign) then-President Jimmy Carter also came out with public opposition to the bill.

In what became the “No on 6” campaign, gay men, lesbians and their supporters went door-to-door in cities and towns across the state to talk about the harm the initiative would cause. Gay men and lesbians came out to their families, their neighbors and their co-workers, spoke in their churches and community centers, sent letters to their local editors, and otherwise revealed to the general population that gay people really were “everywhere” and included people they already knew and cared about. At the beginning of September, the ballot measure was ahead in public-opinion polls, with about 61% of voters supporting it, while only 31% opposed it. But just a month later, the Briggs Initiative ended up being defeated by more than one million votes, with 58.4% voting against Proposition 6, compared to just 41.6% in favor. It represented the largest shift of public opinion that had ever been recorded within such a short time frame.

Please do yourself the huge favor of taking the time to watch this full version of the extremely valuable documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. You’ll find that this classic portrait of communities in conflict is a stunning reminder of what many of us are still facing today. Our most urgent present-day struggles are reflected in this film’s original, dramatic account of Harvey Milk’s grass-roots political organizing and election, through the shocking murders and their repercussion, from the eloquent candle-light memorial joined by tens of thousands of San Franciscans on the evening of the assassinations, to the rage of angry crowds in the aftermath of the lenient sentence Dan White received at his murder trial.

The Times of Harvey Milk: A Documentary Portrait

Before there was this year’s Academy Awards celebrated Milk, there was the widely acclaimed The Times of Harvey Milk, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film in 1984, and was awarded The Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, among other awards. The documentary chronicles the political career of Harvey Milk, who was San Francisco’s first openly gay elected Board Supervisor. The film, at times humorous, at times nostalgic, and at other times quite tragic, tells the story of Harvey Milk’s rise to political power and emergence as a symbol of gay political achievement.

The Times of Harvey Milk documents through assembled historic film clips the tumultuous story of Milk’s grass-roots political organizing and election, through the shocking murders and their repercussions. It takes the film’s viewers along with the eloquent candle-light memorial joined by tens of thousands of San Franciscans on the evening of the assassinations, to the scenes of angry crowds who stormed San Francisco’s City Hall in the aftermath of the lenient sentence that Dan White received at his murder trial.

This Academy Award-winning documentary feature film depicts not only Harvey Milk himself, but also the political and social milieu of the era in which he lived. From this perspective, the film continues to have significant relevance for our nation today, standing as a classic portrait of communities and cultural values in severe conflict. The film was produced subsequent to Harvey Milk’s death using archival footage, so that Milk is credited posthumously as the lead actor. Other politicians, including San Francisco’s then-mayor George Moscone (who was assassinated along with Milk) and Moscone’s successor and now United States Senator Dianne Feinstein, also appear in the archival footage. Also featured in the film is then-schoolteacher Tom Ammiano, who has been a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since 1994, and was recently elected to the California State Assembly. The film’s outstanding narration is provided by the acclaimed stage and screen actor Harvey Fierstein, who at that time had just achieved great success with his own Tony Award-winning Broadway play Torch Song Trilogy.

What follows here is the Official 1984 Trailer for The Times of Harvey Milk, videos of the network murder reports and the candlelight memorial march. In addition, it presents the full-length version of this celebrated documentary feature film, as well as a rare photo-gallery of vintage photographs of Harvey Milk and San Francisco during the social era of the mid-1960’s and 70s.

News Report: The Murders of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk

The Times of Harvey Milk: The Candlelight Funeral Rites

The Times of Harvey Milk: The Full Version of the Documentary

Slide Show: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk

(Please Click on Image to View Slide Show)

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