The 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is available for free on hulu.com – you just have to be prepared for the commercial interruptions. I remember seeing it in a theater when it came out – I must have been 17 or 18 – and being devastated. The opening shot, the famous footage of Dianne Feinstein announcing the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk, is still shocking. But more shocking to me was the verdict in the Dan White trial – guilty of manslaughter. I knew about Milk’s death going into the theater, and I’m pretty sure I had heard of the “Twinkie Defense” but I hadn’t put them together. At one point in the film, Jim Elliot – a previously homophobic auto machinist who got to know Milk through his union work – comments on the verdict: “if it had just been Moscone that got killed, I think he [White] would have been guilty of murder and he would have been at San Quentin the rest of his life. But, sad to say, I think there’s a lot of people in this world that still think that if you kill a gay, you’re doing a service to society. I think I’d have thought that too if I hadn’t been associated with Harvey and the gay community – I probably would have felt the same way.” I distinctly remember thinking: “that’s absolutely right.” I don’t think I had any (out) gay friends at the time, and it was a shocking revelation to me that gays faced this kind of attitude as a matter of course.
It’s interesting to compare “The Times of Harvey Milk” to “Milk.” Despite Sean Penn’s amazing performance, I like the documentary much better – but this very well could reflect my own failings in film appreciation. Some footage is used in both – including the Feinstein announcement. But the clips don’t always serve the same purpose. In “Milk”, they show President Carter telling an audience to “vote against proposition 6” – the 1978 California initiative to prohibit gays and lesbians (and arguably anyone who supported gay rights) from teaching in public schools. But “The Times of Harvey Milk” shows more. Carter had finished his speech, and began to leave the podium. Off-mike, Governor Jerry Brown says to him: “and Ford and Reagan have already come out against it, so it’s perfectly safe.” Carter leans back to the mike and says: “Also, I want to ask everybody to vote against proposition 6.” He smiles, and walks off. Anyway, whether or not you’ve seen “Milk,” you should find 1-1/2 hours, brace yourself, and watch “The Times of Harvey Milk.”