It seems every major city has its gay village, often the bedrock of official regeneration projects. Ground zero was the Castro district in famously liberal San Francisco. In the 1970s it became colonised by LGBT+ folk who had deserted narrow-minded, small-town America seeking sanctuary and safety.
Even in the hedonistic ‘gay lib’ 1970s the Castro might have had gay bars, boutiques and bookshops (not to mention doctors and delis) but the difficulties of job security and getting a mortgage remained. Into this milieu came Harvey Milk who opened a camera shop. Energetic and charismatic, the hippiefied Harvey soon got to know the gripes of the local community (not just fellow queers): rent control, employment protection, crime, taxes, transport, education and even the preponderance of pavement dog poop. He decided to run for the city council and was elected in 1976 under mayor George Moscone’s new diverse administration. The one newbie that stood out in this cohort was ex-fireman, the clean-cut Dan White.
Although Milk was a powerful voice for the gay community he made it plain that he was for all citizens. He fought plans to sack gay teachers during a national anti-gay backlash promulgated by tub-thumping fundamentalists like campaigner Anita Bryant who talked openly – and ominously – of “do[ing] away with the homosexuals”. Her pieing remains a YouTube must-see.
Milk’s story ended in tragedy when Dan White went on a rampage and murdered Milk and Mayor Moscone. White’s motivations were confused. Did the clash of his family values in a city of new openness lead to catastrophic cognitive dissonance? Was it difficulties in his private life? Was he a latent homosexual? Or, as his defence said, incredibly, was it his junk food diet (what was dubbed his ‘Twinkie defence’)? At his trial, he was convicted of manslaughter and got a mere five-year sentence. The Castro community’s grief morphed to anger and candlelight vigils turned to cop-car-burning riots.
This Oscar-winning documentary (it was the basis for the 2008 drama Milk with Sean Penn) is a timely reminder of an age when LGBT+ rights had to be fought for, often in the face of aggressive discrimination and hostile prejudice, not to mention police brutality.
The Times of Harvey Milk may seem old-fashioned – it has a narrator (Harvey Fierstein), no dramatised (or animated!) reconstructions, no over-reliance on the photo-library and no confusing flashbacks, or -forwards, but its concise construction is a model that current documentary makers would do well to study.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 5 Oct 2020