Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Times of Harvey Milk

San Francisco board of supervisors member Harvey Milk on the left and mayor George Moscone on the right.

The Times of Harvey Milk is an incredible documentary. I watched it the other night for about the sixth time in two years, and it never gets old. It well deserves its Academy Award. The film is about the assassination of Harvey Milk by Dan White and the later miscarriage of justice in White's trial.

Milk was the first openly gay elected public official in the U.S. He was elected to the San Fransisco board of supervisors in 1977 after running three previous campaigns for the position. Dan White was also a newly-elected member of the board of supervisors. On the day of the assassination, November 27, 1978, White was disgruntled because he found out he wouldn't be re-appointed to his seat on the board of supervisors after voluntarily resigning. He clearly acted in a pre-meditated fashion, having the presence of mind to avoid metal detectors and bodyguards, brought plenty of ammunition, and reloaded in-between killing Moscone and Milk.

It seems that White didn't kill due to homophobia so much as paranoia that members of the board of supervisors and the mayor had conspired against him. In a term that came into popularity years later, White "went postal."

The jury's verdict, however, must have been due to homophobia. Rarely does someone convicted of going postal get a sentence of seven years for manslaughter. Add to that the fact that White killed two public officials and you get a sense of just how outrageous the White verdict was. Critic Roger Ebert complained that the film doesn't put enough emphasis on the prosecution's incompetence, and doesn't include interviews of the jurists, but unless the prosecution deliberately bungled, there's no other conceivable reason that an assassin of public officials would have gotten such a light sentence, except for homophobia. White's defense was that he didn't know what he was doing because he suffered from depression. (One of the alleged symptoms of this depression that the defense offered was White's switching from a health-conscious to a junkfood diet, which later caused the public to believe that White's lawyers had pleaded the Twinkie defense.)

As Janet Maslin said in her 1984 review of the film in the NYTimes:
If Mr. Epstein can't fully explain what happened, he can certainly tell the story with urgency, passion and, finally, indignation. Toward the end of the film, a young black man asks rhetorically what sort of sentence he might have received for such a crime. Another interviewee speculates that Mr. White's staunch support for middle-class values and opposition to the homosexual community's growing power contributed to his light sentence (he was released from prison last January). And a third man suggests how pivotal Harvey Milk and his cause may have been to the verdict: ''I think if it were just Moscone who'd been killed, he would have been in San Quentin for the rest of his life.''
A web site devoted to courtroom sketchs of the Dan White trial is here.

The key to the greatness of The Times of Harvey Milk lies not only in the importance of the subject matter, but the artfully conducted and edited interviews with a group of people who knew Harvey Milk. They all come off as really likeable people, and are shown both marvelling at Milk's antics and mourning his death.

If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. For more information, go to the Telling Pictures web site.