Rob Epstein’s chronicle of the career of San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official had its world premiere at Telluride in 1984. Its initial fest circuit included other notable events including New York, Chicago, Berlin, and Sundance, where it took home a special jury prize. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary the following year, solidifying its place in both the nonfiction and LGBT film canons, as noted by its inclusion last year in the National Film Registry. Notably, Gus Van Sant went on to retell and further popularize Milk’s story in 2008’s fictional MILK, which went on to win Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black, galvanizing the latter as a new, public spookesman for LGBT rights.
The Quad’s re-release of Epstein’s doc comes a few days after Harvey Milk Day, commemorating Milk’s birthday, May 22, and, more importantly, after a series of anti-gay hate crimes in New York City which sadly have included the Greenwich Village murder of Mark Carson on May 18 and the attack on Dan Contarino on May 20. Epstein’s film tells the story of Harvey Milk, a Castro Street camera store owner who turned to gay rights activism and local political organizing, running for office several times before being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Tragically, after just under a year in office, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were both gunned down by Dan White, a fellow city supervisor who had recently resigned after several clashes with Milk and other board members. Narrated by Harvey Fierstein, and featuring extensive archival footage of Milk, Moscone, White, and other San Francisco civic figures in addition to contemporary interviews, Epstein’s elegaic film demonstrates Milk’s charisma and importance to not only his fellow San Franciscans, but to the LGBT community as a whole, as manifested in several key scenes. The footage of his election victory captures the dawning awareness of validation and the possibility of true change by his supporters, the candlelight vigil in response to his murder serves as a poignant reminder of the reality of their struggle, and the riots that ensue after White’s lenient sentence reflect the LGBT community’s rage at being treated like second class citizens, as well as their still unresolved grief at their leader’s assassination. Unabashedly political, Epstein’s expertly crafted and always affecting documentary takes up Milk’s call for full LGBT equality, and, as indicated by these recent bias-motivated crimes, remains as essential now as it did upon its initial release.