Member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978. Milk's life leading up to his election, his successful efforts to politically represent San Francisco's gay community, and the city's reaction to the assassinations are documented with extensive news film and personal recollections. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
As president of the board of supervisors, it's my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.
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Though I am a San Francisco Bay Area native, I have no memory of Harvey Milk's career, being as I was only 6 when he was assassinated. However, watching this film made me feel as if I was there, seeing everything as it happened. It truly is that powerful and involving.
Director Robert Epstein skillfully alternate between archival news footage and interviews with Milk's friends and associates, who recall him with warmth and affection. This isn't a hagiography (Milk was, as his former campaign manager notes, hot-tempered and sometimes very hard to work with), it's merely a straightforward portrait of a fascinating and inspirational man.
Harvey Milk was charming, intelligent, articulate, and above all, tenacious. It was largely due to his efforts and those of his supporters that the Briggs Initiative, which would've restricted the rights of gay teachers, was defeated in California. Though gay rights were understandably his biggest issue, he also fought for other disenfranchised groups, and shrewdly recognized that they should all come together as one to fight for human rights. He also presciently recognized the very real possibility that he could be murdered, and taped a statement which he requested be played only in the event of his death by assassination. It's eerie to listen to it, not least because he speaks in such a matter-of-fact way.
Epstein provides a surprising amount of balance with regards to Dan White, who shot both Milk and George Moscone. He certainly doesn't have sympathy with White's actions, but he makes sure to note that White had devoted his whole life to public service, that he gave up a secure job as a fireman to take a low-paying job as district supervisor, then quit in frustration. Nonetheless, his disgust for the ridiculously light sentence White received for murdering Milk and Moscone is palpable, and one interviewee posits that had White murdered only Moscone, he'd have been in San Quentin for the rest of his life.
White, by the way, committed suicide a year after being released from prison. Epstein thought about changing the ending of the film in order to mention this fact, but decided that to do so would be to shift the focus too much to White. The subject of this movie is Harvey Milk, and it's a beautiful tribute to him.
I do have one criticism: the filmmakers don't clear up the matter of the so-called "Twinkie defense," in which psychiatrists who testified for Dan White's defense allegedly claimed that his consumption of junk food was what caused his depression (which, his attorneys argued, was what led him to go on his killing rampage). What the psychiatrists actually claimed was that White consumption of junk food was a symptom, not the cause, of his depression.
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