In honor of Gay Pride Month, the Asheville Film Society will show Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)—a work that was rightly acknowledged in the credits of Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), since it very clearly informed and influenced Van Sant’s film. This is more or less the same story—in some ways the documentary is actually more simplified than the biopic—told with archive footage of the real people and interviews with many of them. If there is a finer, more moving documentary than this, I have yet to see it.
Epstein opens his film with Dianne Feinstein’s TV speech, “As president of the board of supervisors, it’s my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed,” and works back from that to trace the events leading to the assassinations of both men by councilman Dan White. There is nothing all that remarkable in a good deal of Epstein’s approach. He offers us a fairly straightforward documentary narrative once he passes this attention-grabbing opening. What is remarkable is the cumulative power of the material and the way in which Epstein has put it together to achieve that impact. The quality and sincerity of his interview subjects help tremendously, as does the narration by Harvey Fierstein, who proved to be the perfect choice for the assignment.
As I noted in the first paragraph, Epstein’s documentary is if anything a bit more slanted to presenting an almost deified image of Harvey Milk than was Gus Van Sant’s biopic. Some of the details of Milk’s life that are included in the film are left untouched here. I think that’s understandable. Despite the similarities between the two films, there is a distinct difference in aims. Van Sant’s film is an attempt to paint a picture of Harvey Milk. Epstein’s film, as its title suggests, is also about the time in which this part of Milk’s life—and his death—took place. There’s a difference in focus—one that makes the two films perfectly complement each other.
If you’ve never seen The Times of Harvey Milk, you really should. If you’ve seen Milk, you should also see its documentary brother. Both are tremendous achievements in their own right, but taken together, they are, if anything, more powerful than either film is alone.