The Times of Harvey Milk

by Jon Mandle on March 16, 2009

The 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is available for free on – 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.”



lt 03.16.09 at 6:40 pm

The biggest difference, of course, is that “Milk” ends with the candlelight vigil – the trial, verdict, and famous White Night riots are relegated to the closing credits. Which makes sense from a dramatic point of view when you’re dealing with a biopic, but also has the effect of shutting out the more disturbing elements, as you allude to. It also takes away from giving viewers a sense of the real anger that was part of the period. and the movement.


Matt Stevens 03.16.09 at 7:31 pm

I saw Milk soon after reading Shilt’s The Mayor of Castro Street, and I was surprised how close the two were. I too found the movie’s upbeat ending a disappointment, because the outcome of the White trial, and the police’s violent response to the anti-White protests, were the most shocking parts of the story.


Randy Paul 03.16.09 at 8:13 pm

I lived in Harvey Milk’s district in an area called Noe Valley during that time. I voted for him because he was the candidate who cared the most for all citizens of the district.

He was a good man who cared about his community.


Matt 03.16.09 at 8:17 pm

I’d known the story of Harvey Milk from listening to old Jello Biafra spoken-word albums when I was a punk rock kid in high-school but only recently watched the documentary (from netflix). It is very good. Biafra claimed that the police in SF wore “Free Dan White” t-shirts under their uniforms around the trial but it’s not mentioned in the movie. It wouldn’t surprise me, though. I haven’t seen the film but do strongly recommend watching the documentary. (It’s a very small part of the tragedy, but without this killing we also might have been spared Senator Diane Feinstein.)


Ben Alpers 03.16.09 at 10:29 pm

Growing up in the Bay Area, these events were part of my childhood (I was a freshman in high school when White and Moscone were assassinated).

One side note: at the heart of the story was Mayor Moscone’s decision not to reappoint White who had resigned from the Board of Supervisors. Yet another, if extremely bizarre, example of what a bad idea it is to fill vacant electoral offices with executive appointments rather than special elections. (To be clear, Moscone was no more responsible for his own death than were the Twinkies Dan White had consumed, but events would likely have played out rather differently if there had been a special election in White’s district instead of the always peculiar politics of appointing someone to an elected post.)


Uncle Kvetch 03.16.09 at 11:21 pm

It’s a brilliant and devastating film–I first saw it when I was just coming out, and I’ve revisited it several times since, and it’s never failed to leave me shattered. So much so, in fact, that I think I’ve been subconsciously avoiding Milk because I don’t see how it can possibly do a better job of telling the story.


Uncle Kvetch 03.16.09 at 11:23 pm

Oh–and God bless Jello Biafra. Thanks, Matt.


Mrs Tilton 03.17.09 at 12:26 am

As coincidence would have it, we watched Milk on DVD this evening with our teen son. I have no reason to think he’s gay. But if he is, I hope the film will help him understand that there is nothing at all wrong with him or who he is. And if he isn’t, I hope it will help him understand exactly the same thing.

(As a side note, the film should also lay to rest some positive gay stereotypes; specifically, the idea that being gay automatically confers fashion genius. Some viewers might have been impressed when Milk got a haircut and shave and started wearing a three-piece suit. For me, the really dramatic transformation came when he finally stopped wearing white socks with the suit.)


roy belmont 03.17.09 at 3:25 am

There may be a subtext to the ridiculous “twinkie” defense. Or there may not.
The surface idea is it was a junk-food-induced psychosis defense, which many people at the time found, and most people still find, grotesquely absurd and disgusting as an excuse for cold-blooded murder.
But the word “twinkie” was then, and still is a code word for underage male sex objects. Male children as sex objects.
The idea being that gay liberation meant liberation for pedophiles, in some minds.
Since almost no one could get the issue and its darker ancillaries out into the public forum, and so make the distinction between healthy gay sexuality and unhealthy sexual predation, which was a lot of what made Milk so heroic to so many, that he seemed capable of articulating that distinction, the fears of people like Dan White went unanswered.
The Freudian bizarreness of White cycling his blood sugar out to insulin psychosis on “twinkies” may have had that subtext, or it may not.
Certainly there were those in the law enforcement community who would read that word in that context as signifying something more disturbing than just junk food, and White was close to that community, as well as to the puritanically intolerant side of traditional S.F. Catholics.
No accurate history of those hideous events is complete without at least a recognition of the valid concerns of those who saw first hand the damage done to young lives in the sexual underworld.
The same subtext is probably operating in the infamous Cuban intolerance of homosexuals, which the right is constantly harping about.
What the revolution banished from Cuba, among other things, was a wide-open sex tourist industry, run by Meyer Lanksy’s criminal organization, where any predilection was catered to, and Cuban children were bought and sold to wealthy perverts.
Sad things all around. But maybe not as one-dimensional as it seems at first glance.


Mrs Tilton 03.17.09 at 7:56 am

….the infamous Cuban intolerance of homosexuals, which the right is constantly harping about. What the revolution banished from Cuba, …, was a wide-open sex tourist industry, … where any predilection was catered to, and Cuban children were bought and sold to wealthy perverts.

Cuba might have stamped out the prostitution of children to rich American sex tourists, but it is communist. And I am certain that is the sole and entire explanation why a conservative stalwart like Limbaugh prefers democratic holiday destinations like the Dominican Republic.


Sebastian 03.17.09 at 2:54 pm

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.
Chris Orr of TNR made the same point and came down on the side of the documentary even more strongly. So your instinctive film appreciation seems to be doing fine…


roy belmont 03.17.09 at 7:01 pm

Mrs. T:
Should you have seen fit somehow to work cigars into that, my awe of your dynamic erudition would have ascended to the boundless.


Tim B 03.18.09 at 2:32 am

Whoops — you forgot to mention that is only available in the USA.


JoB 03.18.09 at 1:27 pm

Why is it that of the few movies I see, all of them become a topic on CT? ;-)

Milk, not a very good movie – nowhere near the documentary – but an extremely important one nonetheless given that the upbeat ending indeed would, even decades later, be a bit over the top (why else did Sean Penn need to use the stage to draw attention to the gay cause?).

One thing the movie did to me (which is not something the documentary did to me, as far as I do remember) is show how crucial the forced ‘coming out’ was.


James 03.19.09 at 1:56 am

The acquittal was an outrage, but the “Twinkie defense” is a myth:

(Indeed, as the final paragraph notes, the truth is probably more outrageous than the myth.)


James 03.19.09 at 1:58 am

The acquittal was an outrage, but the “Twinkie defense” is a myth. I think this was held the first time because it contained a link, so look it up on Snopes. As their final paragraph notes, the truth is actually probably more outrageous than the myth.


cs 03.20.09 at 1:58 pm

The Snopes link is not very convincing. Snopes admits that a defense expert did suggest that junk food altered White’s thinking, but it was only a “parenthetical aside” and not part of the actual defense case. I’m not sure how Snopes claims to know which defense claims were part of their actual case (and which affected the jury).

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