The Harvey Milk Film Festival | April 22-23, 2022

The 15th Annual QFest St. Louis doesn’t begin until April 29, but you can get a head start with the Harvey Milk Film Festival, which features two films, Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (April 22, 7:30 pm) and Gus Van Sant’s 2008 feature film Milk (April 23, 7:30 pm). Van Sant’s film is preceded by a panel discussion, “Sanctification of an Icon Through the Arts: Harvey Milk” (April 23, 6:00 pm), and both films will be introduced by QFest co-programmer Joshua Ray.

Harvey Milk is such a gay icon that it’s hard to believe he’s been dead almost 44 years. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (essentially the city council) in 1977, making him the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. He didn’t sit back and wait his turn, either—in his first year in office, Milk successfully sponsored a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public accommodations, housing, and employment. Such regulations are common today, but they weren’t in the 1970s, any more than it was common in those years for public officials to admit to being anything other than conventionally heterosexual.

It’s a good thing Milk got that bill passed quickly, because he served only 11 months in office, which is all the time he got before being assassinated on November 28, 1978, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone. The assassin was former city supervisor Dan White, who had resigned his own post, decided he wanted it back, and was upset because Moscone, whom he believed was influenced by Milk, chose to not reappoint him. Homophobia may have played a role as well—White cast the sole “no” vote on the bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual preference—as well as jealousy of people who were succeeding while his own life was going nowhere. The verdict in White’s trial was a travesty that gave rise to the phrase “Twinkie Defense,” although the original meaning was different from how the term is generally used today.*

It’s the rare movie that can make me cry, and even rarer that a documentary can achieve that feat, but Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk gets me every time. It offers a great introduction to Milk’s career and his importance to the gay community, but it’s also full of heart. This may be due in part to it being an “own voices” film—Epstein and narrator Harvey Fierstein are both openly gay—and also to the film’s timeliness, as it came out only 6 years after Milk’s death, and in the same year that White was released from prison (yes, he served only five years for murdering two people). The Times of Harvey Milk is an example of how to do a traditional documentary—made up of interviews, archival clips, and a voice-of-god narration—right, and offers proof that traditional doesn’t have to mean dull.  

Milk offers a fictionalized treatment of Harvey Milk’s life, directed by Gus Van Sant from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black. It’s a “big” film, with a star-studded cast (including Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Alison Pill, James Franco, and Victor Garber) and glossy production values, which uses familiar Hollywood techniques to direct your attention and tell its story. It’s also a hugely enjoyable film, and the fact that Focus Features trusted American audiences in 2008 to empathize with a gay central character says a lot about how much societal attitudes changed in just 24 years (not that there’s not still further to go). Milk is neither better nor worse than The Times of Harvey Milk—instead, the two films are complementary, and both are well worth seeing. Both films are also Oscar winners: The Times of Harvey Milk won Best Documentary in 1985, while Milk won Best Actor (Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (Black).

The Harvey Milk Film Festival is a collaboration between Cinema St. Louis, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL), the Webster University Film Series, and the St. Louis LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, and is presented as a complement to OTSL’s upcoming presentation of the opera Harvey Milk, which will be presented in repertory, June 11-25. Further information about the opera is available from the OTSL web site. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Harvey Milk Film Festival will take place in the Winifred Moor Auditorium at Webster University. All events are free, but require advance registration on the OTSL website.

*White’s defense team claimed overconsumption of junk food was a symptom that White was suffering from depression, and the depression itself was the source of his diminished capacity (which they argued meant he could not be held fully responsible for his actions). They were not claiming that eating junk food caused the diminished capacity, although that is usually the meaning taken from the phrase today. 

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