Harvey Milk Film--Pride, Sorrow : UCI Presentation of Honored Picture Triggers Emotions
David Souleles was 13 on Nov. 27, 1978, the day Dan White climbed through a window into San Francisco City Hall and shot to death Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The event that devastated the city and its gay community had little meaning for Souleles at the time. He has only a vague memory of the news reports. But since then, Souleles, now 20, has acknowledged his own homosexuality and become a leader in the gay community as co-chair of UC Irvine’s Gay and Lesbian Student Union.
And Monday night, he wept with pride and sorrow--along with many others who attended a screening at UCI of “The Times of Harvey Milk,” a powerful, Academy Award-winning portrait of the state’s first openly gay elected official. The 90-minute documentary also captured the New York Film Critics Circle Award as well as the Grand Prix at the Nyon Film Festival, an international documentary film festival in Switzerland.
The showing was the first of a two-night run, sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Student Union along with Laguna Outreach Inc., a nonprofit educational organization concerned with gay and lesbian issues. The $300,000 documentary, which took six years to complete, will also be broadcast Nov. 13 on most public television stations.
Opening with the television news announcement of the deaths by then-San Francisco Supervisor Diane Feinstein, the film chronicles Milk’s evolution from a brash, long-haired camera store owner to a confident city supervisor, a champion of all minorities. It includes a televised debate with state Sen. John Briggs over Proposition 6, the initiative that would have banned homosexuals from teaching in public schools. And it contrasts a silent candlelight walk by 40,000 people the evening of Milk’s death with the riots and torching of police cars six months later on the day White was found guilty not of murder but of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
White served five years of his seven-year sentence. Last week, nearly two years after his release, he committed suicide.
The audience of 90, most of whom were gay men, professionals and students, watched without comment, laughing at Milk’s idiosyncrasies or references to homosexual stereotypes and weeping quietly at the evidence of public affection for Milk.
Director and co-producer Robert Epstein, who had flown down from San Francisco for the showing, told the audience he too felt “shaky” after seeing the film. It was the first time he had seen it since White’s suicide. In a separate interview, Epstein said he was not surprised that White had killed himself. “That was his mind set. When you can’t control something, kill it.”
The murders of Milk and Moscone occurred three weeks after the defeat of Proposition 6, which White, a former policeman and firefighter, supported. He resigned his supervisorial post when it was defeated. He asked to be reinstated, but Moscone turned him down.
Epstein said he had already begun a short film on Proposition 6 when the deaths occurred. Then, he said he decided to expand the project into a feature film when he perceived the murders and the ballot measure were linked by a larger theme: the conflict of values between human rights advocates and the fundamentalists who would become the Moral Majority.
Epstein said he was disturbed over the amount of attention paid last week to White’s suicide. “It’s somehow making a man who was a killer into a sympathetic killer.”
White has been the subject of a stage play and a television documentary. But Epstein said that in their research, he and his colleagues interviewed many people who knew White and found his character “ultimately wasn’t that interesting. The guy was immature, he had a singular definition of his manhood that was wounded one too many times during the Harvey Milk era. His story . . . wasn’t that important. Whereas, (the more) we got into the Harvey Milk story, the more rich it became as to what it represented--which was trying to better humanity. Harvey Milk was really trying to do something positive.”
The UCI showing was planned six months in advance of White’s suicide, said Souleles. The film’s narrator, however, observes--prophetically in hindsight--that White was released from prison after 5 1/2 years with no psychiatric treatment.
Souleles said reaction to White’s suicide among his gay acquaintances ranged from “He deserved it” to “If he had been given stronger punishment, he wouldn’t have had to punish himself.”
“I tend to feel sorry for anyone who has to take his own life regardless of what he did,” said Souleles, a junior majoring in psychology.
The film’s narration features Milk’s voice exhorting individuals not to hide their homosexuality and acknowledging the possibility of his own assassination. It is also woven with emotionally candid interviews with eight San Francisco men and women, gay and straight, who tell how Milk affected their lives.
“Just seeing him and what a difference he made inspired me to continue with my work here,” said Souleles afterwards.
Dr. Don Hagan, an Irvine physician and co-chair of the Election Committee of the County of Orange (ECCO), a political action committee for homosexuals, said he also wept during the film. “It recharged my batteries. It made me proud.”
“Until we share with those around us who we are, the world will never understand we are the sons and daughters of middle America,” said Hagan, who is also the only openly gay member of the State Central Committee of the Republican Party. He said he hoped the film would be seen by his mother and his father, who is a Southern Baptist minister.
Also watching the documentary for the first time Monday was Bob Gentry, a Laguna Beach City Council member who as Orange County’s first openly gay elected official, saw parallels to his own experiences in the film.
Gentry said he was touched most strongly by a remark in the film by Jim Elliot, a machinist and secretary of his local union, who admits he once approved of police officers who “roughed up” gays for no reason but, after knowing Milk, called such attitudes “a shame.”
In the film, Elliot says: “When I first met Harvey Milk, I heard someone say, ‘He’s gay’ and I thought to myself, ' . . . how am I gonna go back to these guys at the union and tell them that we’re supporting a fruit?’ But as I listened to him, you realized that he wasn’t only for gay rights. He was for anything that affected little people. This was the kind of guy who was gonna talk about you .”
“All he’s saying is that when you know a person, prejudice and discrimination fall away,” said Gentry, who is associate dean of students at UCI. “That’s what it’s all about. . . . Our only defense is being known by the honesty of our lives.”
Along with Martin Luther King, Milk represents a role model for anyone in public life who is publicly gay, Gentry said. “They both represent courage, nonviolence and commitment to a better future for all mankind.”
After receiving a standing ovation, Epstein answered questions from the audience. One man asked why the film makers had omitted major references to Milk’s personal life, including his mother’s suicide. “We were interested in Harvey Milk, the political animal,” Epstein replied. Too much personal detail would have overshadowed the theme of values in conflict, he indicated.
In response to another question, Epstein said he hoped the film would someday be released as a video.
The following evening, 125 people, including more nongay couples, attended the showing, said Frank Newman, co-chair of Laguna Outreach.
In addition, Laguna Outreach hosted a fund-raising party Sunday for Epstein. The event, which drew about 85 people from Los Angeles and Orange County, raised nearly $10,000 toward Epstein’s next project, a documentary which presents a model for community response to AIDS. Next to $40,000 he received from San Francisco public television station KQED, the donation was the largest so far, Epstein said.
He said he was surprised and gratified to find he had so many supporters in Orange County which he had previously dismissed as “Briggs country.”
Newman said Epstein himself is as inspiring as the film he made. Although the showings earned about $900 less than the $1,000 goal, Newman said: “That’s not the point. “It was a beautiful experience for everybody who was there.
“Everybody grows up feeling there’s something wrong with gay people. People like Harvey Milk and Robert Epstein help us feel proud.”