Rob Epstein and Richard Schienchen's The Times of Harvey Milk
Every time I watch The Times of Harvey Milk, directed by Rob Epstein and produced by Richard Schmienchen, I am overcome with emotion. Call me a sentimentalist, but this film touches my heart, striking at the core of human emotion.
The Times of Harvey Milk tells the story of the life and times of Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay person to hold political office. Much of the film’s emotional power derives from the simplicity of its storytelling, making effective use of the most basic of documentary cinematic tools: voiceover, stills, interviews and stock footage.
There are so many elements that give the film emotional weight, as well as informative and educational density: the use of “witnesses” to shape the audience’s perception of Milk; the use of narration to condense the scope of the story; and the conscious use of sound to heighten the drama and tension. But it is structure that stands out most for me both as a filmmaker and a film educator. The Times of Harvey Milk employs the structural model of Present, Past, Future.
The film begins in the present, at the point in Milk’s life and the film’s story that is most salient to the film’s themes. It opens with shaky, perceptibly hysterical, television news images of Diane Fienstein, then Chair of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, centered among a throng of reporters. Distraught, she announces that Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Willie Moscone have been assassinated by Supervisor Dan White.
Why start the film with Milk’s death, rather than begin with a chronology of his life or with historical information? Powerful films grab their audience’s attention from the first frame. By starting in the present—at the most dramatic moment in the story or the character’s life—rather than the past, or with back-story or exposition, Epstein ensures the attentiveness of his audience. Only after we are dramatically engaged does the film un-spool backwards in time into the past and continue moving forward from Milk’s childhood on through his assassination and the trial that followed (the future). In other words, Milk’s death gives reason for learning about his life.
What makes this paradigm so effective is that about 53 minutes from the start, the narrative returns to the present, and we re-learn of Milk and Moscone’s murder, this time with wider shots and additional testimonials. Even though we were informed of his killing in the first minutes of the movie, when it is retold it takes on greater poignancy because we are fully invested in Milk as a person. We truly care about Harvey because we have come to know him and understand what his struggle to reach political office signifies and symbolizes. Thus, when we learn the light sentence that White received for the murders, this startling revelation takes on even greater pathos. The Present, Past, Future Paradigm essentially ensures this outcome.
I am always deeply affected by this film. I could write and talk about it forever. I praise its masterful melding of form and content. I watch it at least once a year, sometimes screening it in a production class at NYU, showing it to friends, or watching it for the inspiration that it continues to give me as a filmmaker and a human being.
Marco Williams is an award-winning filmmaker and a film educator. He is a member of the film faculty at NYU. His recent documentary, Two Towns of Jasper, airs on PBS in January 2003.