Over the course of four features and several shorts, Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf has mined the histories hidden in archives, stitching together a rich and complicated view of twentieth-century America. He’s drawn to subjects that are misunderstood or fly under the radar: with his 2008 debut, Wild Combination, he shined a light on a neglected genius of avant-garde music, Arthur Russell; in the 2013 Teenage, he traced the birth of youth culture; and in last year’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, he combed through countless hours of VHS footage collected by a woman who obsessively taped what was on her television for thirty years. His latest project, Spaceship Earth, is fascinating account of an early nineties phenomenon in which eight people built and isolated themselves for two years inside Biosphere 2, a recreation of Earth’s ecosystem. In anticipation of the film’s digital release last weekend, Wolf wrote this reflection on a classic queer documentary that showed him the power of cinema created out of archival material—and its enduring importance for marginalized communities.
A few summers ago, I went to Anthology Film Archives to see a restoration of the 1977 gay liberation documentary Word Is Out. The film is deceptively simple in its conceit—interviews with twenty-six men and women about being openly gay. The filmmaker Peter Adair was seeking visibility, so he and his collaborators went across the country to ask their peers, “Who are we?” My friends and I left the theater profoundly moved by the beauty, resilience, diversity, and humanity of our fellow queers. This was the early days of gay liberation, and Word Is Out was a milestone in building our history.
The making of the film was a community endeavor itself, produced by a collective of San Francisco–based filmmakers called the Mariposa Film Group. One of those filmmakers was Rob Epstein, then twenty-two years old. Seven years later, he would complete his first feature film as sole director, the Academy Award–winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.
As a gay teenage activist in the late 1990s, I found queer films in the public library—everything from Kenneth Anger to Issac Julien—and that’s where I first saw The Times of Harvey Milk. I was in San Jose, an hour south of San Francisco, and I would visit the city regularly to go to activist meetings with other gay teens. Afterward we’d meet in Dolores Park, a grassy, elevated field, which back then had an intergenerational stew of punks and hippies, lounging partially clothed. One night, looking down at the magical cityscape, I was struck by the gravity of the fact that a generation of queer people were missing from plain sight. Some of those warm faces from Word Is Out, and too many of their friends, had died of AIDS in the face of homophobic government neglect.
It was just at the beginning of this terrifying and angry era when The Times of Harvey Milk was released. In fact, that year—1984—researchers identified the HIV virus as the cause of AIDS. San Francisco, a city that until recently felt like a cozy gay village, was besieged by the epidemic. As a teenager, I held that sense of loss, and in the absence of so many gay liberation pioneers, I wanted to learn my history.
The Times of Harvey Milk depicts a starkly different mood in San Francisco: the same time that the Mariposa Film Group was filming interviews for Word Is Out. In both those films, there’s a sense of innocence and reverie, as Bay Area transplants in search of counterculture and gay liberation converged on Castro Street. Harvey Milk was their unofficial mayor, and he held court in his tiny camera shop.
Epstein’s film is a biography in the classical sense, featuring interviews, archival footage, and narration with Harvey Fierstein’s signature queeny vocal fry. The film is shot in 16 mm—a format I fetishize as much as I do the 1980s interview interiors—and I assume that the revelatory collection of archival material was amassed from a tight-knit group of Bay Area filmmakers. As in Word Is Out, you feel a sense of community coalescence in the filmmaking, and I noticed in the thank-you credits dozens of individual supporters, and another “751 contributors.”
That sense of solidarity is most potent in a scene that recounts Milk and fellow gay activists’ defeat of the homophobic 1978 Briggs Initiative (also known as Proposition 6), which sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools. The scene features professor and fellow gay activist Sally Miller Gearhart (also one of the most memorable interview subjects from Word Is Out), who along with Milk became a leader in the community-driven campaign to defeat the ballot measure. Other interview subjects, like the activist and teacher Tom Amiano, recall this turning point in gay visibility, famously rallying the community to “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!”
The scene begins with an incredible scratched Super 8 home movie, shot from a crowd of cheering demonstrators at a Los Angeles rally against Proposition 6. Milk is passionately yelling into the microphone: “Jimmy Carter, listen to me, you want to be a leader in world human rights, well, damn it, lead.” Shortly after that rally, Governor Ronald Reagan supported Milk’s cause, and Jimmy Carter haphazardly spoke out against the homophobic initiative. One of the best images in the film is Harvey shaking Carter’s hand with a devilish grin.
The scene evolves as Epstein returns to activist Sally Miller Gearhart. Every once in a while, as you’re conducting a documentary interview, a subject will have a heightened experience of déjà vu, and a moment from their past is vividly brought to life on screen. During Gearhart’s interview, she remembers the night when Proposition 6 was successfully defeated. Her face beams with joy when she says, “That was one of the most exciting nights in my life.” Footage of ecstatic crowds and cheers brings what’s playing in her mind to life. At the victory party, we hear the gravitas of Milk’s recorded voice: “Every gay person must come out, as difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends, you must tell your neighbors, you must tell the people you work with, you must tell the people in the stores you shop in . . . Once you do you will feel so much better!” In this inspiring scene, I feel transported to that victorious night, as though I’m among a generation of activists at a crossroad in queer history.
It’s interesting to think about the lapse of time that passed from the defeat of the Briggs Initiative in 1978 to the completion of The Times of Harvey Milk in 1984. I was born in that bracket of time, and so to me, this story feels like “capital H” history. But for Epstein, I imagine there was a sense of urgency and immediacy to capture Harvey’s story, in the years following his senseless murder. He rightly had the conviction that elevating Milk’s profile would be essential history for a future generation. In fact, my generation was so taken by Milk’s charisma that he was valorized in a fictional biopic written by Dustin Lance Black, which in my opinion pales in comparison to the real deal.
Rewatching The Times of Harvey Milk, I’m brought back to that question posed by the Mariposa Film Group back in 1977: “Who are we?” In the intervening decades, as the AIDS crisis took its toll, and rampant gentrification in the gay enclaves of San Francisco and New York displaced an entire cohort of artists, activists, and elders, I think it’s important to also ask, “And where do we come from?” Epstein and his longtime collaborator Jeffrey Friedman have committed themselves to answering those questions in films like Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, about the AIDS movement; The Celluloid Closet, about the early portrayal of queer people in cinema; Paragraph 175, about the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Holocaust; and others.
It’s easy to romanticize figures from the past, and to see their biographies through a rose-tinted lens. The Times of Harvey Milk certainly doesn’t dig into Milk’s shortcomings, or show in-fighting and division within the queer community, but that’s not the point. The film is a loving portrait of a modern folk hero. I found comfort in watching this scene because it depicts a tangible victory, and in moments like this, we need those stories.