The widespread embrace of surprise hit Milk has helped elevate the story of Harvey Milk from a largely-forgotten footnote of Frisco history into an iconic lesson in personal strength and political conviction. This occasion presents a welcome opportunity to discover or re-visit the film that originally memorialized Harvey Milk's tireless fight for civil rights nearly 15 years ago (in a less "gay-friendly" American landscape), The Times of Harvey Milk.
While Gus Van Sant's biopic and Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen's documentary both tackle the same subject, the differences between the two films are considerable. Consider the titles: Where Milk is narrated by the voice of Harvey Milk (via Sean Penn), adheres to the main character's point of view and concludes with his assassination, The Times... builds a portrait of its central figure with the personal accounts of those who worked with Milk and follows the aftermath of the activist's death up through his murderer's own troubled end. Epstein and Schmiechen examine the context of Milk's political life with as much detail and nuance as they bring to their main subject. Their Oscar-winning film commemorates Harvey Milk while soberly acknowledging him for what he was: a savvy, hard-working politician who impacted his community as strongly as it shaped him.