The Other Milk Film- The Times Of Harvey Milk
Originally reviewed in 2009 on the 25th Anniversary of “The Times Of Harvey Milk” documentary.
The Times Of Harvey Milk, Harvey, George Moscone and others, 1984
In the recent hoopla over the commercial film “Milk”, about the political rise and assassination (along with the Mayor, George Moscone) of the first acknowledged openly gay politician, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and the Oscar-worthy performance by actor Sean Penn this little film documentary has been overshadowed. This is unfortunate on two counts. First, this film won, on its own merits, an Oscar, as well, for the Best Documentary of 1984. Secondly, for those with a political perspective, especially those with a leftist perspective, this documentary is a more satisfying and instructive film about the limitations of electoral politics as a vehicle for the advancement of any oppressed sector of society.
Below the headline for this review I have placed a link to a 2009 review of “Milk” by Amy Rath, editor of the Women and revolution pages of the working class newspaper “Workers Vanguard”. The points made there about the limitations of sectoral politics by segments of the oppressed are close to my own views and therefore I will merely make a few comments here about some other points of interest in the film.
This documentary is driven by footage of the events that led up to Harvey Milk’s political victory, his term of office, short as it was, the events surrounding the trial of his murderer, fellow Supervisor Dan White. And the outrage, justifiably so, of the gay community and others, over the jury verdict in the case (manslaughter). As is the nature of such efforts there are the inevitable “talking heads” who give their take on Milk, the meaning of his political life, some personal observations and comments by those who were influenced by, or worked politically with, Milk.
Two of the commentators stick out. One, a lesbian professor from San Francisco State (I think that is the right school) gives an overview of what the Milk campaign meant for the gay community and the struggle for political power in one city. The other, an old time local labor leader (important in a big labor town, at least at that time), who, seemingly kicking and screaming, came to admire Harvey Milk. One should pay careful attention to his comments even a quarter of a century later as, despite some real gains made by the gay and lesbian rights movement, there is nevertheless still a ”culture gap” that he expressed very well about his attitude toward gays before working with Milk and that is not uncommon, if politically incorrect, in many neighborhoods today.
Twenty five years after the release of this film how does the legacy of Harvey Milk’s work stand up? I don’t mean the limitations of the parliamentary (and legal) road to social reform. That is covered in the Rath article on “Milk”. I have also dealt with the question in other contexts around the women’s liberation struggle, the black liberation struggle and other questions of strategic importance to the struggle for a more just society. Rather I want to finish here with a little comment about Harvey Milk, the gay man. From this documentary it is clear that he was very political, very committed to the struggle for gays rights, not afraid, as in the case of Proposition 6 (the 1978 efforts by some right-wingers to exclude homosexuals from the public teaching profession), to tackle the yahoos and had a certain charisma. In short, all the attributes of any politico (at least a potentially successful one). But that is neither here nor there. What I think Milk’s short political life ultimately means was caught in the speech included in the film that he made after that Proposition 6 defeat where he called on all gays and lesbians to “come out of the closet" (a seemingly quaint term now but very advanced then) and fight the yahoos wherever they are and wherever you are. That, my friends, despite my differences of political strategy with the late Harvey Milk is very good advise indeed.