It's Been Real
The Times of Harvey Milk
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy."-Harvey Milk

By any yardstick, Harvey Milk is an extraordinary, historic figure. The self proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street," Milk began his career as a New York stockbroker and ended his life (which was cut tragically short by his assassination) as a City Supervisor in San Francisco and as the first openly gay elected official in the United States. Milk ran for office in San Francisco four times before finally being elected to his position, and immediately began fighting to improve the city, taking on issues that effected everyone (like his famous crusade to pass legislation fining people who don't pick up after their dogs) and especially defending underrepresented minorities (battling to adopt a voting system that would help non-English speakers and fighting tooth and nail for the passage of a gay rights bill). While he was only in office for 11 months before he was killed, he made the most of that time, battling and defeating a statewide proposition that would have prohibited openly gay individuals from working as teachers.

The Times of Harvey Milk, which won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar upon its release in 1984, is a moving account of his quick ascent, skillful coalition building, and the motivations behind fellow Supervisor Dan White, who killed Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978. Through archival footage, photographs, audio of Milk's speeches and pre-recorded will, and the views of staffers, colleagues, and supporters (including a gruff union worker who freely admits he would likely still be a homophobe if he had never met Milk) a portrait of a politician is formed, and a view of the aftermath of his tragic death is forwarded.

The film is fairly conventional, intermixing the usual elements of a documentary in ways that any viewer of the genre will know well. In fact, its almost shocking how closely it adheres to standard documentary formats, presenting the facts, intercutting interviews with friends and associates, and showing archival footage as if its all pretty rote. There's little inventiveness to the proceedings, and Rob Epstein seems almost absent as a director. The only passion evident throughout the film comes from those interviewed, and from the narration by Harvey Fierstein (which also often seems too detached). It also often feels rushed, leaping from Milk's childhood through his time in New York, barely grazing his multiple campaigns for office, touching on his greatest achievements and then speeding through his death and its aftermath almost as if the filmmakers had bullet points of what they hoped to cover and forgot to fill in anything in between them.

Additionally, the film suffers from the distance it attempts to keep from Dan White, Milk's murderer. White is a perversely fascinating character, an almost creepily wholesome former firefighter and cop who got off with a manslaughter conviction based upon the now famous "Twinkie Defense" (that eating too much junk food caused the depression that lead to his assassination of two public figures). A few of the interviewers mention the idea that jury selection and anti-gay bias might have influenced the verdict, but little is done to examine that as a possibility. And for a man who could easily have presented a perfect contrast to the liberal, pacifistic Milk, the film fails to really fill in the details on White more than is strictly necessary to understand why he might have killed Milk and Moscone.

But when the film shows the vigil on the night of Milk's death, in which thousands of people marched peacefully, carrying candles and signs to city hall, it is hard not to get choked up at the influence of the man and the loss human rights suffered when he was murdered so early in his political career. The film poignantly conveys the pain still felt by those close to Milk, and shows the whole left when this passionate, charismatic and eloquent leader was senselessly transformed from icon to martyr. And as Milk's famous "you gotta give "˜em hope" speech plays over footage of the man, it's hard not to be swept up in the power of his message and the sadness that those who knew him feel.

Some might argue that this amounts to emotional manipulation on the part of Rob Epstein, but I would disagree. The Times of Harvey Milk is an incredibly by-the-numbers documentary, but the story it records is such a powerful one it doesn't need skillful, passionate direction to be powerful. In fact, the subdued tone of the production may say more than an audacious version could have. By being a quiet, conventional film, The Times of Harvey Milk lets us see all the more lastingly the true legacy of the man. Instead of speaking for him or speaking to us, the film gets out of the way and lets Harvey Milk speak for himself, the way he always liked it best. And in that way, it's a fitting legacy for a man who deserves to live on in our thoughts and in our actions.

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Coming up on Its Been Real:

6/10: Bowling for Columbine

6/24: Hellboy: In the Service of the Demon

7/8: Rockumentary Month: Don't Look Back

7/22: Rockumentary Month: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

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