Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The recent release of Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7—along with the ongoing protests in the streets of American cities—has us thinking back on other movies about activism.
Like a lot of gay Americans in the 1960s and ’70s, businessman Harvey Milk migrated to San Francisco. There, he opened a camera store with his boyfriend on Castro Street, in the heart of the LGBTQ community. A charismatic and quick-witted U.S. Navy veteran who’d had a lot of experience interacting with conservative and straight people, Milk quickly became an effective organizer and activist in the neighborhood, speaking out not just about gay rights but about workers’ rights, renters’ rights, senior citizens’ rights, education, litter… really anything that affected San Franciscans, regardless of their sexual orientation. After a few failed campaigns, Milk was elected to the city’s Board Of Supervisors in 1977, and within his first year in office—before he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by the disgruntled ex-Supervisor Dan White—Milk had spearheaded an anti-discrimination bill and helped defeat a statewide initiative aimed at firing gay teachers.
The title of Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times Of Harvey Milk—not “The Life And Times” or even “The Life And Death”—signifies what the movie’s really about. Epstein does tell Milk’s story, touching on his very typical mid-20th century white American middle-class boyhood, and on the sense of freedom he felt after moving to California and finding his tribe. The film also describes how Milk forged an unlikely coalition of ethnic minorities, feminists, and labor leaders, convincing them that if they supported each other’s causes, they could change San Francisco’s status quo.
The Times Of Harvey Milk also explores the tragic consequences of all this newfound power: namely that it left more old-fashioned types like Dan White feeling disoriented. In the aftermath of Milk’s murder—which happens about an hour into this 90-minute documentary—White’s mental and emotional instability became central to his lawyers’ defense strategy, and eventually led to him getting a reduced sentence. The resulting outrage radicalized many.
So that’s why it’s “The Times” in the title. The film’s most important voices don’t belong to the politicians seen in archival footage, but rather to their constituents, who speak emotionally about how their minds and lives were changed by seeing someone as unapologetically out as Milk barge into the mainstream, as though he already belonged. Milk’s whole message was that marginalized people needed to introduce themselves to America, and to let everyone know that for the most part they were all worried about the same things, like good jobs and clean streets. Even now, people who met Milk or even just voted for him get choked up talking about how he made them feel like they were stepping into a new era.
But while The Times Of Harvey Milk is as inspiring as it is wrenching, there’s an undertone of caution to Epstein’s documentary that’s maybe easier to hear now—in our dangerously polarized times—than it was back in 1984. Because while American culture as a whole is far more accepting of guys like Harvey Milk today than it was 40 years ago, the Dan Whites of this world have never fully faded away. Yes, this is a film about the reassuringly steady chug of social progress. But it’s also a chillingly prescient one about the lengths to which some will go to slam on the brakes.