Times of Harvey Milk, The (1984): Superb Docu of Gay Activist

Among other achievements, Bob Epstein and Friedman’s Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk helped prepare the background for feature movies about AIDS.

Produced after Milk’s death, the feature relies on original interviews, exclusive documentary footage, news reports, and archival footage.

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

The Times of Harvey Milk
The Times of Harvey Milk film poster

Film poster

Other politicians including San Francisco mayor George Moscone (who was assassinated with Milk), and Moscone’s successor and now Senator Dianne Feinstein appear in archival footage. In the opening scene, a tearful Feinstein announces to the media that Moscone and Milk had been assassinated by Dan White.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

The Times of Harvey Milk chronicles the rise to political power and the murder of Harvey Milk, one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials. Milk’s story parallels the story of the modern gay rights movement, specifically the heady times of the 1970s in probably the most organized gay community in the world, San Francisco’s Castro district. As a mobilizing symbol, the gay community couldn’t ask for a more potent representative than Milk.

With elements of both tragedy and nostalgia for a unique period in gay and lesbian history, Milk’s story is chronologically told. Unsuccessful in his first attempt at a City Supervisor seat, Milk eventually won after the city’s redistricting. His campaign and triumphant victory are related by a former campaign aide, who tells of his kindness, generosity, and insistence on a diverse campaign staff. The footage of his victory shows Milk and his supporters react with both disbelief and unmitigated joy.

The tragedy that follows is foreshadowed as we learn of Dan White, the fellow San Francisco Supervisor who murdered Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Despite White’s confession and overwhelming evidence of intent, he is given a sentence of only seven years.

San Francisco’s gay community is catapulted into a state of grief and rage that produces a series of riots at City Hall. The scene of the candlelight march held for Milk after his murder is especially poignant.

Also featured is schoolteacher Tom Ammiano, who would become a member of the California State Assembly.

The Times of Harvey Milk is a piece of history and a tribute to an endearing figure in the gay rights movement.

Harvey Fierstein (narrator)
Anne Kronenberg
Tom Ammiano
Sally Gearhart
Tory Hartmann
Henry Der
Jim Elliot Union Rep
Allan Baird, Teamsters Union leader

Oscar Context:

The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and was awarded Special Jury Prize at the first Sundance Film Fest.


Directed by Rob Epstein

Produced by Richard Schmiechen, Rob Epstein

Co-written by Rob Epstein, Carter Wilson, Judith Coburn

Narrated by Harvey Fierstein

Music by Mark Isham

Cinematography: Frances Reid

Edited byRob Epstein, Deborah Hoffmann

Distributed by TC Films International
Release date: October 26, 1984
Running time: 90 minutes

Of Similar Interest:

Milk, feature directed by Gus Van Sant, Starring Sean Penn in Oscar-winning performance.