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SXSW: The Case Against 8

March 12, 2014
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caseagainst8One of the best films at last year’s South by Southwest Conference was Good Ol’ Freda, the story of the Beatles’ secretary Freda Kelly. Ryan White directed that film, at the behest of his aunt, the movie’s Catonsville producer Kathy McCabe, during a lull in the making of another picture. That film, The Case Against 8, centers on the legal case surrounding California’s Proposition 8, the 2004 referendum which banned same-sex marriage in that state after brief period when it was legal.

Co-directed by White and Ben Cotner, The Case Against 8 is one of the best films at this year’s SXSW, giving White back-to-back triumphs in Austin. He and Cotner also won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at the Sundance Festival in January. They deserve the accolades, for the movie balances the four plaintiffs’ heart-wrenching stories with a clear-headed view of the legal and political issues to create a milestone Civil Rights movie.

Ted Olson and David Boies had been the lead lawyers on opposing sides of the landmark Bush v. Gore case which allowed the Supreme Court to settle the 2000 U.S. presidential election, giving George W. Bush the victory even though Al Gore received more votes. Improbably, Olson and Boies became good friends during that legal battle and discovered that there was one issue they both agreed on: the right of every American to marry no matter what their race, religion or sexual orientation.

When these two agreed to be the lead lawyers challenging Proposition 8, it provoked outrage on both the right and the left. How could Olson betray his conservative principles? How could gays work with the attorney who put George W. Bush in the White House? One of the movie’s pleasures is watching Olson interact with a largely leftist legal staff. The two men shrugged off the criticism and went looking for just the right plaintiffs. We moviegoers are lucky that the two couples prove as appealing on the screen as they were persuasive in the courtroom.

Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, who lived in Burbank, are so much in love that they keep hugging and touching each other whenever things get stressful. Kris Perry and Sandy Stier actually got married during the brief interlude in 2004 when it was legal in California, and the film includes footage from the joyful wedding reception. After Proposition 8 passed in 2008, on the same day as Barack Obama’s historic election, the Berkeley residents received a letter from the state saying their marriage was invalid. When Stier unfolds the letter and reads it in the movie, an echo of the shock is still there.

In the name of these four plaintiffs, a huge team of lawyers pursues the case in the California Supreme Court, where they win in 2011. The case is appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court in 2012, where they win again. By the time it arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, the case has already consumed four years of the lives of the plaintiffs, lawyers, and filmmakers. Stier’s twin sons graduate from college in the meantime; White makes Good Ol’ Freda, and Obama “evolves” on the issue of same-sex marriage.

By this time, we’ve gotten to know Zarrillo, Katami, Perry, and Stier so well that we’re rooting for them just as we would the protagonists in a fictional film. But film directors White and Cotner do a good job of constantly reminding us that this is reality, that there are crucial legal and political questions involved as well. Back and forth the movie zig-zags, between the personal stories of the plaintiffs and the broader context.

It would have been a stirring film, though much darker, even if Anthony Kennedy had voted to uphold Proposition 8. But he voted to declare both Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, prompting giddy, infectious celebration by the four plaintiffs, elation in the movie audience and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 17 states and counting.

A lot of people on the American left like to tell themselves that we are living in dark days, that nothing good is happening in U.S. politics. They are ignoring the fact that this is the golden age of the gay civil rights movement, the equivalent of the ‘60s for African-American civil rights. The Case Against 8 makes clear that we are living through special times and we should appreciate them while they’re passing.