The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by Rob Epstein
Intersectionality is a word you might hear going around these days. This is the concept of recognizing how people represent multiple identities or how a political issue intersects with various communities and identities. In the United States right now, it’s become time to look at how issues like climate change and a lack of health care have become intersectional issues. The people first affected and most dramatically traumatized by climate change are and will continue to be low income and non-white people. Climate change becomes an intersectional issue, not just merely about cleaning up pollution but acknowledging that our society has allowed groups to become more vulnerable than others.
Harvey Milk was a person who understood the power of finding those points of intersection. By recognizing where we come together, it provided an opportunity for people to get to know someone unlike themselves. In time, they would see that for whatever perceived difference they were equals, they all needed the same basic physical and emotional things to survive. Milk, as an elected official in San Francisco, worked to find those touchpoints and, as a result, united many groups in the city previously thought to always be divided.
I couldn’t help but think about Pete Buttigieg, the recent candidate in the American Democratic Primary. If it wasn’t for someone like Milk that Mayor Pete likely would have had a much harder time getting to where he in politics. I also thought that Mayor Pete had very little in common with the style and personality of Harvey Milk. Milk wasn’t a person with a drive to seize power; he was interested in improving the lives of the community around him. He was a great orator, but Milk didn’t need to ape someone that had reached a higher position than himself. Milk spoke confidently but never down to his audiences.
Director Rob Epstein has created a profoundly absorbing documentary with some of the best interviews I’ve seen in a doc of this style. The people he speaks with still love Harvey with all their hearts some six years later, and I imagine even to this day. What is so important about the interviews is both their personal recollections of the man but also the way they were radicalized in the wake of his murder. It makes complete sense that the LGBTQ participants were outraged, but what is most telling to Milk’s legacy is a gruff union guy speaks frankly that if it was only the mayor who was murdered, the killer would have gotten a life sentence. He elaborates that because Milk was a gay man and the jury was so meticulously stacked that a poisonous message was being sent to gay people in the Bay Area.
The anger of the people is palpable. Tom Ammiano was an openly gay school teacher at the time, terrified of the Briggs Initiative, a proposed law to make discrimination against LGBTQ teachers legal. Through his work with Milk, he became inspired and fought to convince voters to turn down this idea and succeeded. He has a particularly beautiful interview allowing himself to feel the pain of Milk’s death. It’s remarkable at how raw that loss was still for these people and will inevitably motivate the audience to care.
These days we need more Harvey Milks and less…cynical opportunists. That’s not to say Milk didn’t see an advantage to playing things up for the media. One of his first initiatives as a city manager was a law to require people to pick up after their dogs. He personally placed some dog doo on the grass outside the city hall so that he could step in and provide a photo op for the media present. The world is most definitely less with Milk not in it, but his passing did bring out the good in the world. People were reported to have come out of the closet in significantly large numbers with his passing. Any person that helps another to feel free and safe with who they are is a hero.