‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ serves as a spirited cry for change decades later

Very rarely does a documentary from the 1980’s age well in our climate. Being that so much in the LGBTQ+ community has evolved since then, often film directors find themselves prefacing their work with cautionary statements about “how much times have change.”

However, for filmmaker Rob Epstein, who recently screened his award winning film Times of Harvey Milk four decades later at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this wasn’t quite the case. 

To say that emotions were running high in the theater before the film even began was an understatement. Epstein was slightly emotional before the film even started because he knew why so many of us were there. Like him, we, too, were there to watch the film for a little bit of hope, considering the mounting anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment we keep seeing on the news. Thankfully, the film became that beacon of hope.

The Times of Harvey Milk, which blends archival footage, interviews, and personal accounts, paints a vivid portrait of Harvey Milk’s life and demonstrates how relentless Milk was in his fight for equality within his district. While the documentary was originally intended to solely focus on the Briggs Initiative campaign, it also spoke to the injustices that queer and trans people faced then and what we continue to be up against now.   

“We have to remember that none of this is new. The trans community is the latest political scapegoat.

Rob Epstein, Director (The Times of Harvey Milk)

Much of the film highlights the work and struggles that Milk traversed in order to become the first gay elected official in California. However, it also chronicles how white supremacy and toxic masculinity stole one of the most important people away from our community when fellow colleague Dan White assassinated Milk and mayor George Moscone. 

Most importantly, the film shows us how Milk’s work opened the eyes of those who often dismissed LGBTQ+ voices and experiences. Through centering the voices of his friends, colleagues, political allies and more – the people who actually worked on the campaign – it reminds us why Milk’s work is more than just a rallying cry for queer freedom, but a blueprint for queer liberation. 

In a post-screen Q&A, Epstein shared that his mission when creating the film was “to take this little known story out of San Francisco and find a wider audience.” He went on to say that he knew that the film was going to be released on PBS and that showing it at film festivals, like Sundance, would “take Harvey’s story to a greater public.” 

Now, with the film being screened for a whole new generation, many are feeling motivated to create change, but still wondering if things will ever change. For Epstein, his colleagues who found love while making the film, and the viewers, the message is bigger than the fear we have all endured. 

“We have to remember that none of this is new. The trans community is the latest political scapegoat,” Epstein told the audience. “This is a time where we really need to come together and fight for everyone,” Epstein said to the packed Egyptian Theater. 

Epstein’s closing words add so much more levity to not only the film, but the current state that we are all in. “We have to remember to nurture hope,” Epstein said. “We never thought that Deb [our editor] and Frances would ever be able to get married. We go two steps forward…and a step back…whatever that saying is.” 

While so many of us are actively planning our next steps to move forward, let’s remember the life and times of Harvey Milk and what he did to provide us with our marching orders. 

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