“The Times of Harvey Milk” Is Still Urgent and Essential Viewing

Rob Epstein (photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance)

By Bailey Pennick

“This will be banned if this election goes the wrong way. How do we stop it?”

“What is your advice to keep hope alive?”

“What are we going to do?”

Four decades after he screened his sophomore film at the very first Sundance Film Festival, these are the questions that Rob Epstein is fielding from the audience. The crowd is emotional. The crowd is angry at the injustice of what they just witnessed in the 88 minutes of The Times of Harvey Milk. The crowd is anxious and looks to the documentarian for answers. 

With each one asked, he never gets flustered. He’s calm and eager to connect with the engaged crowd because he’s been answering questions like this for 40 years. “We have to all be ever vigilant,” Epstein says after the 40th Edition Celebration screening at the Egyptian Theatre. The film’s cinematographer, Frances Reid, doubles down on Epstein’s advice: “Harvey’s call is still the call we have to pick up — especially this election year.” 

The call Reid is speaking of is Milk’s iconic speech about hope, which Epstein ends his Academy Award–winning documentary with. “Without hope the us’s give up,” says a voiceover of the slain San Francisco supervisor over footage of his campaigns and acts of public service. “I know that you can’t live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, and you have got to give them hope.”

The Times of Harvey Milk, originally meant to be a documentary about the Briggs Initiative campaign, traces Milk’s hard work and rise from Castro camera shop owner and neighborhood activist to the first out supervisor in the city and icon for the LGBTQ+ community. In capturing footage about the discriminatory proposition (which would have banned gay and lesbian individuals from working in California’s public schools), Epstein was able to capture interviews with Milk’s constituents and put the film together quickly after Milk and mayor George Moscone’s assassinations by fellow supervisor Dan White.

“The mission of the film was to take this story that was little known out of San Francisco and find a wider audience,” Epstein explains at the post-screening Q&A. “We knew it was going to be on public TV, because we got a grant to make the film and show it there, but once we showed at festivals like Sundance [and then when we got the Oscar], we cumulatively were taking in that what we set out to do was taking effect. We were bringing Harvey’s story to a greater public.”

After The Times of Harvey Milk’s release on PBS, Epstein and his crew received stacks of mail about the changing of minds and hearts of previously close-minded family members. This wave of change continued after the Academy Awards as well, but Epstein is quick to remind everyone that they were still a small production. “The next day, after the Oscars, the film’s distributor went bankrupt,” he says with a laugh. “Classic independent cinema.”

The moment of levity is appreciated in a room filled with people who are quick to make parallels between the slew of anti-gay legislation of the 1970s/80s and the anti-trans legislation currently popping up like weeds in America. “This dialectical reaction to communities self-identifying and the backlash to that is not new. The trans community is the latest political scapegoat,” says Epstein before reiterating the need for all of us to come together and fight for everyone’s rights.

It’s hard for the audience to calm down when they just witnessed a cut-and-dry double assassination with the perpetrator only being convicted of voluntary manslaughter with a sentencing of seven years in prison. “Every time I see the film, I’m still shocked that [Dan White] got out of prison before we finished the film,” says Epstein.

So how do we move forward from this? Epstein’s film hits you right in the gut, leaving you winded thinking about how we as a society have gotten to this point. It was true in 1985 when it won the Special Jury Prize Documentary at the first Sundance Film Festival, and it’s still as potent today. “How do we nurture hope?” the director asks, looking out at the crowd. “Things seem so bad right now, but, at the same time, things are so different. Look at Deb [our editor] and Frances; we never thought that they would be able to get legally married. … Remember that part of this film is about the failure of the Briggs Initiative.” He pauses to let it sink in. “We’re moving two steps forward and one step back. … This was a history that we all lived [and we can fight it again.]”

With each viewing of The Times of Harvey Milk, the us’s get larger. 

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.

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