Oscar-Winning Director Rob Epstein Remembers Harvey Milk

When Rob Epstein released his 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, it didn’t simply serve as a memorial to Milk -- it gave him new life. For more than two decades, filmmakers have tried to turn Milk's life into a major motion picture. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant finally made it work, and Epstein, who calls the film "beautiful," takes a look back at the man who inspired a movement and what's become of California's gay community without him.



Harvey Milk x100 (Daniel Nicoletta/Focus Features) | Advocate.com

There are also similarities between the antigay
Briggs Inititiative (Proposition 6), which Milk fought,
and California's recent Proposition 8. However,
there's one big difference: Briggs lost, and Prop.
8 passed. Why could we defeat it then when we can't now?
The defeat of Prop 6 worked on so many different
levels. There was the grassroots organization, and
there was Harvey as the kind of front
person/standard-bearer who could really take it on as an
elected official. There are parallels, but there are
also differences, as I see it. What was going on then
was a reaction to gay people coming out, which was
somewhat new in society. Those initiatives were all being
aimed to try to stop that inevitable tide. This Prop.
8 initiative, the fact that it was targeting marriage
rights -- even though we were defeated, it shows how
far we've come, that it was something so much further along
the continuum of our progression. Yes, it's a
short-term defeat, but I definitely see it as an
inevitable victory.

In Van Sant's film he includes a scene where Milk
criticizes his own side's anti-Prop. 6 campaign as
"closeted" -- an accusation that was also lobbed
against the modern-day anti-Prop. 8 campaign,
which used mostly straight people in its advertising. Is
there an approach being employed that's not working?
Well, Harvey's message was all about coming out,
and I think that is applicable to the Prop. 8
dialectic. What I guess I didn't see, just
anecdotally, was that voting for 8 was voting for
discrimination, and if you're voting no on 8, you're
voting against discrimination. So, in that sense, I
don't think we were as effective as we could have been.

You know, a
friend of mine was visiting her parents in San Diego, in
Escondido, and she went to Sunday Mass with them, as she
does when she visits. At the end of the service, the
priest, from the pulpit, said, "You can get your
Proposition 8 literature at the door." So my friend
went to see what this was about, and of course it's all Yes
on 8 literature and lawn signs. And she asked, "Do you
have any No on 8 signs?" and the person behind the
desk said, well, no. And my friend said, "I'm a
lesbian, I've been in a long-term, committed
relationship for 20 years with my partner, and I'm a member
of this church, and I would like a No on 8 sign." And
the woman's response was, "Well, we love you anyway."
I guess it all has to be looked at as a teaching
opportunity, and that was Harvey's message.

What do you make of the rallies we've seen since
the election?
Well, I think it's cathartic. Hopefully, it
energizes people and keeps the issue and the fight
alive. It's vital.

Why hasn't the gay community found a new Harvey
Milk in the last two decades?
Who do you see as possible candidates for that?

I don't see many. Lorri Jean has been a galvanizing
speaker at some of our rallies here in Los Angeles, but
there isn't anyone with a major national or even
statewide profile out there. There are more openly
gay people than ever before, but the most famous
members of our community are celebrities, not leaders.
Why hasn’t anyone stepped up to fill Harvey
Milk’s footsteps?
You know, I think it's going to emerge from some
unexpected place in some unexpected way. I think
people fill those roles because they understand the
times in which they live, and they become the person for
their time in the way Obama has. Hopefully, he'll live
up to the potential of that, but it certainly feels
like he emerged out of nowhere and he seized the
moment and hopefully he's going to take us somewhere new.
That's why Harvey's story was so significant, because
he was a man of his times. In a sense he emerged from
nowhere because he didn't have any kind of power or
establishment behind him. He seized the power and galvanized
people. So I guess my answer is that we can't predict
where it's going to come from. And that's where it
should come from.

Milk opens in
theaters Wednesday, November 26.
The Times of
Harvey Milk is available on DVD.

Tags: film