1984, Movies

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984 Rob Epstein)

So unfortunately the filmmakers made a strange – but perhaps understandable – decision when telling Milk’s story: they assumed they were speaking to a very particular audience. This assumption led to another: that therefore everybody knows everything they need to know about the backstory already.

Since I was born in 1981, and since I am not from San Francisco, I don’t know certain things about

  1. Harvey Milk and
  2. San Francisco history and politics.

In fact, I might watch a documentary like this one to learn those things I don’t yet know.

However, because of the assumption that their audience was American (Californian more likely), probably gay or at least interested in gay rights, and very attuned to what was happening in the 1970s, the first third of the film is a wash: we learn very little about Milk, and very little about San Francisco politics, and it’s fairly disastrous.

I think it is totally reasonable for me to demand that filmmakers make their movies transcendent. Documentaries, after all, are supposed to be educational.

However, the film drastically improves around Milk’s election, when the viewer who doesn’t know anything about Milk or San Francisco, can suddenly connect on an emotional level with the various characters. I.e., once the filmmakers start trying to actually tell a story, instead of briefly summing up the backstory, it becomes much more watchable, informative and, at times, moving.

I still have a few nitpicks about the more successful last two thirds though.

  1. First, only one interviewee is included to point out the irony of supporters of an anti-capitol punishment mayor demanding capitol punishment for his assassin. (The film certainly could have looked into that angle a little more.)
  2. Second, little is made of the shocking and alarming fact that San Francisco was – at least according to this narrative – more devastated by the murders of Milk and Moscone than by the Jonestown massacre. That is totally understandable, as human beings always care more about what happens in their immediate vicinity than to what is going on in the rest of the world, but certainly a fairer, less obviously pro-Milk film would have at least acknowledged the somewhat bizarre reaction, or at least might have attempted to see some kind of connection between both events and the ensuing vigil.


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