We watched The Times of Harvey Milk tonight, the 1984 Oscar-winning documentary. I knew next to nothing about Harvey Milk; he certainly never came up in any of my history classes. Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to a major public office, district supervisor of San Francisco in 1977. He and the mayor of SF were assassinated by a former supervisor. His is an amazing, moving, powerful story; why he isn't more readily categorized with other civil rights martyrs is a testament to the persistence of homophobia. He predicted that he would be killed, saying, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." He spoke the language of justice and hope. I was struck, while watching the archival footage of him in action, how much I believed in him. He was a politician, a fact emphasized by his flair for publicity. But he was a politician with passion, vision, and integrity. And he had a beautiful smile: open, joyful, intelligent.
A few months ago we watched another Oscarred documentary (1976), Harlan County USA. That one sat around on the TV for awhile while its Netflix cousins came and went. I wasn't all that into the idea of a film about a coal miners' strike. When we finally settled down to take it in, I was immediately captivated by the story. The filmmakers (led by Barbara Kopple, who recently released Shut Up and Sing, a documentary about the Dixie Chicks) followed the painful arc of the strike through interviews with workers and their wives as well as live footage from the picket line. The film focuses on acute suffering in a way that illuminates but doesn't exploit.
Both documentaries, in addition to just being incredibly well-made movies, are moving in a way that I need to be moved. They do not preach. They tell the stories of people fighting for dignity and justice - primarily through the voices of the people engaged in the fight. They reveal public history through a personal and unapologetically sympathetic lens. I don't know that I've ever encountered better arguments for narrative ethics and theology. What's more, though I've been a fan of Michael Moore, I can't say his approach to cinéma vérité holds much water compared to the grace and wisdom of these projects.
Which is to say: boy, do I ever recommend.