(a film review by Timothy J. Verret)
This 1984 documentary came out the year I graduated from high school. To say that I could have benefited from seeing this film during my high school years would be for me to say that it might have comforted me during the many years of feeling so alone in the fact that I was so different.
I cannot remember the year that I saw this documentary (it was not in 1984, and I must have seen it decades after that), but I do remember how much this film moved me. I distinctly recall saying to myself after the viewing, “That has got to be the best documentary I have ever seen!” I ordered the Criterion Collection of this film and it came in today and I watched it today, and some things never change: “That has got to be the best documentary I have ever seen!” And the Academy Award Committee must have agreed, at least for the year, when the film was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1984.
For those not in the know (and I invite you to PLEASE know), Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to hold political office in California, his position being on the Board of Supervisors for the city of San Francisco. Harvey was not the only “odd duck” on that board: There was also a feminist, an Asian-American, a black woman, and then there was Dan White. Dan White was hardly an “odd duck,” as he was the All-American white man that every parent dreamed could be their son. White was a parent himself with children, he was cute as a button, and someone no one would ever think was capable of violence. But White inflicted violence when he assassinated Harvey Milk along with Mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978, only one year after Milk was appointed to the board. Dan White was sentenced to seven years in prison for manslaughter (the jury bought the “Twinkie defense”), served only five years and was released, only to commit suicide two years later by carbon monoxide inhalation. Getting away with murder will do that to you.
I think Harvey Milk would consider it an insult for me to call him a gay activist. Oh, no, Milk could never be that easily or comfortably boxed. Milk was a human activist who took action for the outcasts, the misfits, the ones who didn’t fit in anywhere. He was the voice of change for the gays, the senior citizens, the blacks, the disabled, the “broken ones.” I’m thinking to myself, “Harvey Milk was kinda like Jesus Christ.” I assume Milk would not consider that an insult, though I don’t think he was a Christian. If I were to have called him a “gay” Jesus Christ, I do think he would have liked that.
Milk didn’t wear his “gay” on his sleeve. No, he wore compassion and loving all kinds of people on his sleeve and most definitely in his heart. But Milk didn’t really have too much compassion and love for Dan White. I don’t think Milk hated White; he just didn’t care for what White stood for. White hated Milk. White hated Milk because Milk was trying to break down what White held so dear: The all-American family with the all-American values and the all-American wholesomeness. Milk was a light that was going to shine in that dark, but White didn’t want anything to do with that light because White was in that dark. There has been much speculation that the reason White was so heated with Milk about the gay issue was because White was a suppressed homosexual (this is NOT just a White-thing). Ironic enough, Milk wanted every man, woman, boy, girl to “come out,” to tell all families and all co-workers and all neighbors that, “yes, I’m gay and it’s okay.” If White was actually gay, there was no way he was going to “come out” and crack the facade of raising kids and getting them into good schools where there would be no gay teachers that Milk supported to corrupt them. White, instead, “cracked” and murdered and got away with it and died. There was no need for White to fight so hard to keep gay teachers out of schools; White lost his own fight by taking himself out of the role of the straight, love-my-kids-to-the-end dad.
Like most great men with great hearts and great courage and great drive, Milk died way too soon. Once again, I am thinking about Jesus. When I think of what Milk could have done if he had lived longer, my heart hurts for his heart that might have been hurt but wouldn’t stop Milk for nothing when it came to equality justice. But I am quite assured that what Milk did accomplish in his short time on earth has had an enormous ripple effect that continues to ripple at this very moment in time. “Gay” is no longer an “unhappy word.” “Gay” has returned back to its original meaning. And that’s because of people like Harvey Milk, a trailblazer, a rebel with a cause, and once again I am thinking about Jesus.
Please have Kleenex handy when you watch THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK. I promise you will need it. All the interviews of friends of Harvey’s will just break your heart when these forever-changed men and women share what it was like to lose their friend and for us to lose our hero.
I am a vegan for life, God-Willing. But I will drink “Milk” if it has Harvey Milk’s name on the bottle or carton. I don’t think Harvey would find that to be an insult.