Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Now Available to Own 

Four campaigns may have been the charm for Harvey Milk to achieve official political office but long before he was elected to serve on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, he was already quite well-known, highly respected and very influential in the liberal fifth district he'd always represented as the unofficial “Mayor of Castro Street.”

Of course from a historical perspective, the official title undoubtedly holds the most importance because with that momentous election, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay individual to have ever been elected to serve in the United States government.

However, when you consider both his humanistic legacy and the fact that his supervisory career was cut severely short by the bullets of a coworker assassin who murdered not only the Mayor of Castro Street but San Francisco Mayor George Moscone as well, ultimately it’s Milk’s status as a courageous working class hero, neighborhood leader and undying champion of minority rights that continues to inspire us decades later.

And sure enough, this evaluation of Milk as an everyman who just so happens to be a gay man determined to fight for equal rights for all is reinforced from start to finish in director Robert Epstein's 1984 Academy Award winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

Deeply committed to honoring its subject in the overall structure of the picture, Epstein's Times still resonates today as a powerfully poignant and personally compelling look at the man who incidentally used to develop Epstein's film at his Castro Street camera store years before Harvey Milk went on to become Castro's own District Supervisor.

Similar to the way that Milk refused to let his very real premonition that he could be assassinated at any moment dictate how he lived his life, as a filmmaker Epstein refused to give any power to former supervisor turned Moscone and Milk murderer Dan White.

In sharing the horrific breaking news announcement about that fateful 1978 day as soon as the movie begins, The Times of Harvey Milk is then free to celebrate and chronicle the way Milk lived rather than the way he died.

Avoiding the tendency to over sentimentalize Milk or turn him into a cinematic saint by way of selective reality, Epstein adheres to the scope allowed by the carefully chosen title, moving beyond traditional biographical portraiture to perfectly capture San Francisco’s gay-friendly Castro community in the ‘70s.

Instead of filling the succinct eighty-eight minute work with dozens of talking heads, Epstein chooses his sources wisely, utilizing two female friends/colleagues, an older straight union man who overcame his initial homophobic prejudice regarding Milk to become one of his biggest supporters, as well as a female reporter to offer us unexpected sides to the story.

An in-depth account of Milk’s official and unofficial rise to power as a Supervisor and Castro’s Mayor, Criterion’s decade-in-the-making restoration of Epstein’s Times includes filmmaker commentary, behind-the-scenes interviews, deleted footage, vintage recordings, etc. and serves as an ideal companion piece to the engrossing Gus Van Sant biopic Milk that it inspired.

Additionally, Times is a passionate reminder that current documentary trends including expensive special effects and ironic musical counterpoints to manufacture reactions can’t hold a candle to the genuine emotion of first person storytelling, the image of thousands of people walking in silence with candles to honor the dead, and the power of a human voice like Milk’s speaking up for those that cannot.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.