Best Movie Ever?: “The Times of Harvey Milk”

National Coming Out Day is this Thursday (October 11), and I can think of no better way to commemorate it than by revisiting The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature that tells the story of that ebullient and righteous San Francisco Board Supervisor who was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance, earned the fitting nickname “the Mayor of Castro Street,” and didn’t mind shaking hands with political adversaries while telling them, “You never know where my hand has been.” There’s no other way to put it: Harvey Milk ruled. His energy was infectious, his message was raw, and it’s impossible not to wonder what else he’d have accomplished if jilted, Twinkie-tweaking Dan White hadn’t murdered him (and Mayor George Moscone) on November 27, 1978. Sure, we’ll always have Sean Penn’s deeply accurate portrayal from Milk to remind us of his power, but The Times of Harvey Milk is the definitive film that explores and pinpoints this gay superhero’s legacy. (It was also ranked #2 on our recent reader poll of the 25 Greatest Gay Documentaries ever.)

Usually, my “Best Movie Ever?” candidates qualify thanks to things like insane wardrobe choices and Madeline Kahn’s shrillness. But The Times of Harvey Milk is a “Best Movie Ever?” candidate for one main reason: It’s a hopeful, devastating, and ultimately empowering movie about gay rights. Here are five other reasons you should watch (or re-watch) it today.

1. Harvey Milk is still one nervy homosexual.

I swear I’m not one of those people who talks about things like spiritual “auras,” but how exactly do you discuss Harvey Milk’s unmistakable zeal without noticing the cloud of hope and power that seemed to surround him? That is my version of an aura, y’all. Even when he’s just coasting along in some gigantic-ass pride parade, he emanates sensitivity, triumph, and fun. It’s rare that a political figure can seem so enthusiastic while also conveying deep understanding of political issues and empathy for almost everyone around him. In The Times of Harvey Milk, though we obviously only watch archived footage of Milk in his prime, every frame is a perfect portrait of his character. You can’t not get him.

2. Morgan Freeman, it’s been real, but I’m ready for Harvey Fierstein to narrate everything.

Part of Harvey Milk’s appeal was his great warmth, and that quality is magnified in Harvey Fierstein’s narration of this movie. As the man who gave us Torch Song Trilogy reads biographical information about Milk and his jump from camera store owner to political icon, the movie just coruscates with respect and warmth. Fierstein’s straightforward, serene tone is one you reserve for talking about a family member, and it’s that delivery that makes Harvey feel like someone we’ve known and still know.

3. The Times of Harvey Milk features two of the most amazing protests ever seen on film.

Following the assassination of Milk and Moscone, San Francisco’s dumbfounded and devastated citizens gathered in what can only be called the most moving display I’ve probably ever seen. I’m doing the calculations, and I think I’m right. Like, remember that bawl-inducing Jim Henson puppet memorial? OK, consider that, but somehow 100 times poignant. Sound impossible? It pretty much was. In a silent procession, thousands of people wielding identical lights lined the streets. As interviewee Tom Ammiano noted, the occasion called for an internalized sort of demonstration, even though there was immense anger in the crowd. Feminist and gay rights activist Sally Gearhart’s reflection described it best: “It was one of the most eloquent expressions of a community’s response to violence that I’ve ever seen, and I think that we as lesbians and gay men, and all the straight people who where marching with us that night – and there were thousands – I think we said it. I think we sent a message to the nation that night about what our immediate response… was not violence, but a certain respect for Harvey and a deep regret and feeling of tragedy about it, because Moscone had been our friend as well.”

Later, when Dan White’s tearful testimony regarding stress and junk food — now called “the Twinkie defense” — swayed the jury to lessen his charges from murder to manslaughter (though there’s also the possibility that the prosecution was shoddy, which is regrettably never discussed or considered in the film), the ensuing San Francisco protests took on an entirely different tone: Citizens rioted, police cars were set on fire, and everyone with a brain erupted in anger. They’d have been even angrier if they saw the footage of Dan White’s wife Mary Ann Burns claiming she somehow “felt bad” for her husband in his legal predicament. I have the shivers.

4. Every single interviewee is perfect.

The critical success of a documentary hinges on the candor and articulation of its interview subjects (Man on Wire, anybody?), and I can honestly say that everyone interviewed in this movie is not only descriptive and genuine, but incisive too. Anne Kronenberg, Milk’s motorcycle-riding campaign manager, is heartbreaking when she discusses how she heard the news of his death after flying to Seattle. Gay activist Bill Kraus has a great line when he says, “I can remember looking at city hall and thinking that wasn’t my place. I didn’t belong there, I wasn’t welcome there, and I didn’t feel comfortable there… Harvey was a part of changing all that.” I especially loved Ammiano, then a gay schoolteacher (now a member of the California State Assembly), and his teary recollection of visiting city hall after Milk was killed. “I drove down to city hall. I wasn’t going to sit here and go crazy… I walked past this entrance that I ordinarily wouldn’t walk past. They were bringing out the bodies then. You can think somebody’s dead — and I knew it was Milk because I knew how tall he was — they hadn’t covered part of his feet or something. You trip out on different things. I thought, ’What a big foot, Harvey. I never realized what a big foot…'”

5. Harvey’s essential quote about coming out

Milk’s definitive victory was the defeat of Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would’ve mandated that schools fire teachers for being gay. Following that victory, Milk spoke about the importance of coming out. Not so shockingly, they’re words people still need to hear.

“Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”

Truth. What are your favorite memories of The Times of Harvey Milk?