The Times of Harvey Milk           Rob Epstein

The Times of Harvey Milk           Rob Epstein

The Times of Harvey Milk           Rob Epstein (USA; 1984; doc)

Viewed star and Shadow Cinema 12 Nov 21; ticket £7

White with Intent

The pathology of assassination of prominent American public figures who had the capacity in themselves to effect the possibility of change in the world, didn’t end in the ‘60’s. It had a brutal sequel in 1978 with the assassination of Harvey Milk.

Epstein’s film is a documentation of Milk’s life in politics and his murder in politics.

The Times of Harvey Milk begins with his political career as an elected representative for the Castro district in San Francisco. It is about a man at a certain time and place. Biographical films all too easily become uncritical hagiographies, but they still stand or fall on the nature of their subject, even tricksy dishonest evasive portraiture can still lend some insight into the subject. Epstein’s story at first concentrates on Milk the people’s representative, and his report back is a glowing testimony to this man. But the film never feels like an indulgent sketch of America’s first openly gay elected politician.

The reason for this is the centrality of the archive footage of Milk in Epstein’s documentary. We see Milk on the stomp in the studio pressing the flesh fighting his corner arguing his case. The responses of the interviewees who knew or worked with Milk are of course all positive. But we understand why when we see him at work. Case in point: Milk and Sally Gearhart are filmed in a radio studio seated opposite to and taking on the conservative political heavyweights wanting to ban homosexuals from working in schools. Milk without rancour calmly demolishes their arguments, in a style and manner that would be welcome today.  Epstein’s respondents talk about Milk as a street politician, an intelligent and humorous debater; bring on the film’s archive footage and you see all this plus his passion. It is this passion for pursuing the issues he championed that defines him and helped him succeed. It is easy to overlook the opprobrium directed at homosexuality at this time. In many states of the Union homosexual sex was prohibited, convicted homosexuals could face long gaol sentences. Milk confronted and drove right through the scattered ragbag of prejudices and false arguments that lay behind the rhetoric of the anti-gay politicians and rabble rousers. He wasn’t going to change the minds of all the bigoted people, but many people heard him and did change their minds. They voted him into office and came to support his causes including promoting gay rights. Milk was a ball of energy who understood the issues and knew how to confront opponents with inconvenient ideas.

Milk knew it was probable he would die at the hands of an assassin. Somewhere there was a white male determined to avenge himself on Milk for being exposed to uncomfortable truths about ‘life’. Milk knew there was a risk that he’d catch a bullet somewhere sometime. He accepted that it went with the turf. Interestingly his close campaign supporters told how they also had been in receipt of an avalanche of hate mail comprising death threats etc. after the success of their campaign to defeat Proposition 6. So nothing new in the current situation experienced by politicians and public figures except the range and intensity of anonymous hate has increased.

So the bullet that came to Milk was anticipated. The killer was a White Man called White, an opponent of Milk and a fellow local politician. Dan White murdered Milk and Milk’s ally San Francisco Mayor Moscone at City Hall in a rampage that could only have been premeditated.

Milk’s death, killed by a revengeful white man: heartstopping but unsurprising.

Another thought that occurs not explicitly covered by Epstein. OK, spoiler! Conspiracy theory advanced. The point in his life when Milk died was just at that moment where in a media flooded world, Milk as politician was gaining a certain amount of traction. Both on camera and in the flesh Milk had charisma. At his age if he chose, he had a political career ahead. There was the possibility that with his attributes and beliefs he could pose a major problem for Conservative Republicans: Senator or Governorship of California were possible political offices to which Milk might aspire.  The issue might be how far his personal life could damage these sorts of ambitions, but maybe Milk had the right stuff to surf over these types of storm waters.  

Perhaps someone somewhere decided to take no chances and to have him rubbed out?   Even if there was no pre-conspiracy to take Milk out, there was a conspiracy to ensure White got White Justice.

The consequent trial White’s action instigated was to become a familiar plot pattern of judicial theatre.   After White’s arrest protective forces immediately gathered round him to ensure that the justice system would be deprived of justice. These forces were not set in motion to specifically protect White, but rather to protect everything that White’s image represented in and to the white community. Most importantly the entitlement of the white power base to do whatever necessary to deny or neutralise opponents who in their eyes were morally discredited and to systematically lay ‘pragmatic’ claim to the immunity of its ‘agents’ from the full legal consequences of their actions. Dan White as a white token was and ‘is’ an enduring and potent symbol of white hegemony. His legal defence was a model deployment of specious and spurious argument to queston and/or minimise his culpability. His exemplary ‘escape’ from justice a green light to wealthy right wing individuals and corporations to tacitly sanction political violence as part of the populist strategy. One undersheriff for San Francisco later stated: “The more I observed what went on at the jail the more I began to stop seeing what Dan White did as the act of an individual and began to see it as a political act in a political movement.”

The white defence machine to protect its own and their prejudices has moved into gear many times since Milk. Cold blooded slayings of Trayvon Martin, Ahmand Arbery, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Josheph Rosenbaum Anthony Huber have all led to mostly white male indictments for murder. The details of the legal defence for the accused may vary but the strategy and the intention behind the strategy is always the same: to use the trial as an endorsement of the right to kill if a twisted white dominant interpretation of the American way of life is threatened.

Although made some 37 years ago it’s sobering that Epstein’s movie is as relevant today as when it was made – perhaps the more so. A direct line can be drawn from Dan White’s trial in 1979 to the storming of the Capital in January 2021.

Adrin Neatrour –

Author: Star & Shadow

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