The Case Against 8

Battles are won because we fight them.

How do you make a compelling documentary on a subject so recently given saturation news coverage that pretty much every informed audience member is going to know the outcome? Co-directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White answer that question in The Case Against 8. Exhaustively tracking the five-year battle to overthrow California’s ban on same-sex marriage, they distill the dense legal process into a lucid narrative while illuminating the human drama of the plaintiffs, and by extension, the countless gay men and lesbians they represent. That makes for a stirring civil rights film that is both cogent and emotionally charged.

Poster art for The Case Against 8Given that 33 U.S. states continue to deny same-sex couples something now widely recognized as an inalienable right, The Case Against 8 remains a powerful advocacy film as well as one of historical record. Perhaps even more interestingly, Cotner and White’s all-access pass to a rollercoaster legal odyssey provides an uplifting demonstration of functioning bipartisanship, something exceedingly rare in American politics.

The leading conservative lawyer Ted Olson shocked right-wing pundits by agreeing to represent the California plaintiffs. Even more startling was Olson’s decision to reach across the aisle and bring on board his liberal counterpart, David Boies, as co-counsel. That the two men who had been on opposite sides of the Bush v. Gore case in 2000 would team up to champion the rights of gay men and lesbians still seems almost surreal.

The film begins in November 2008, when California passed Proposition 8, revoking the marriage rights of same-sex couples after six months of legalized weddings. The American Foundation for Equal Rights, which organized the controversial lawsuit against the state, needed two California couples to serve as plaintiffs. Wholesome relatability (‘people who were just like everybody else’) was a key requirement.

AFER settled on Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, a lesbian couple from Berkeley with four sons, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo from Burbank, who see the domestic partnership option as acceptance of second-class citizenship. Much of the heart of the movie is in these families’ interactions: their unguarded displays of nerves or courage; their moments of tenderness or overwhelming emotion. The film makes it clear this was not some heroic crusade undertaken for personal glory, but a choice involving considerable sacrifice and stress. Five years of lurching between victories and setbacks obviously demanded strength of character.

This was one of the most widely discussed and divisive cases in recent history, and its reverberations continue, with more states preparing ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage. We may know where it ends, but the film’s methodical focus makes the journey there a momentous and moving one.

– David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter


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