The Case Against 8 (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The Case Against 8 opens in Toronto today, June 27, 2014 at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
The fight for marriage equality in California has been long and circuitous. Same-sex marriage has been legalized then illegalized, deemed unconstitutional and held to be required by the state’s constitution. Every time victory seemed clear over the last decade-plus, it was snatched away. As The Case Against 8, the new documentary from directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White points out, the same day Barack Obama was elected president, California voted to enact a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. And that is where the true fight began.
The Case Against 8 focuses so tightly on the step-by-step process the case took from California to the Supreme Court that it loses sight of just how monumental the fight it is documenting was.
The film follows the legal case to overturn Prop 8, as undertaken by one-time opponents Ted Olsen and David Boies (who were on opposite sides in the landmark case of Bush v. Gore). The two see the issue as the defining civil rights battle of our time, a single case that could change the lives of millions of people and, with the advocacy of a prominent conservative like Olsen, possibly change some minds as well.
At times throughout, and especially in its early passages, The Case Against 8 focuses so tightly on the step-by-step process the case took from California to the Supreme Court that it loses sight of just how monumental the fight it is documenting was. This is not much of a legal documentary (most of the actual details of the case are eschewed in favor of memorable sound bites), and for a long time, it isn’t a personal one either—it focuses on explaining the basic PR strategy and the trial prep, but doesn’t spend much time delving into why Olsen was willing to look like a traitor to many conservatives in order to take this case, or why Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Jeff Zarrillo, and Paul Katami were seen as the perfect plaintiffs to stand in for silent masses. It almost feels like the film is more interested in getting this all down for posterity than in delving into the more interesting, nuanced areas of the case.
And yet, the few times the film lets these people talk about their passion for each other, and their desire to be able to wed the people they love, it becomes incredibly powerful. Though often the best moments are hurt by the fact that the camera films the plaintiffs and the lawyers reading from trial transcripts, some of its best moments come when the plaintiffs are just able to speak freely about how they were feeling during the years-long legal battle.
So The Case Against 8 is stymied somewhat, limiting itself to the legal particulars of the case, but never really analyzing them in anything more than a perfunctory fashion …
So The Case Against 8 is stymied somewhat, limiting itself to the legal particulars of the case, but never really analyzing them in anything more than a perfunctory fashion (as both a lawyer-to-be and someone who followed this case in real time, this may have irked me more than it will some of you). It’s a document about a highly emotional, deeply personal issue that too often feels clinical, detached, and historical, but even those aspects leave something to be desired. The film mentions cross examinations and throws out the somewhat complex resolution of the case (which was thrown out at the Supreme Court level for lack of standing, keeping that Court from ever ruling on the merits of the case) briefly, but never digs into the legal arguments or strategies with enough depth to truly work as a story about the case itself.
Proposition 8 was a black mark on not just the state of California, but on the United States as a whole. The case tracked here was not simply a legal victory for two former opponents, nor a personal victory for the couples it allowed to marry. It was a triumph for equality that resonated across state lines and party lines, that changed lives and minds, and shifted how the culture as a whole viewed people who it had often ignored and oppressed. This victory didn’t solve the problem, and it didn’t magically fix all of the issues our country still faces, but it was a reminder of the ability of basic decency to win out in the end. It’s just a shame The Case Against 8 never really plays on any of those registers, except in the few, fleeting moments where it recognizes all of those involved as people rather than just players in the game of history. The film spends too much time memorializing events to recognize why they are worth remembering, and in the process, it sacrifices a chance to remind us all what was being fought for in this case, and what is still being fought for today, in courtrooms and bedrooms, in streets and in state capitols. The fight is worth having, the victories worth celebrating, the case and the people involved, worth a more thoughtful, considered, and powerful documentation.
The film spends too much time memorializing events to recognize why they are worth remembering, and in the process, it sacrifices a chance to remind us all what was being fought for in this case, and what is still being fought for today, in courtrooms and bedrooms, in streets and in state capitols.