Happily, HBO’s joyous documentary “The Case Against 8” is already out of date. A title near the end of the movie mentions the number of states with marriage equality, but the count doesn’t include Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. Will the producers keep updating the title or will they leave it in place as a historic marker?
“The Cast Against 8” is finishing a local run that ends Thursday (June 19) at Washington’s West End Cinema after a June 9 D.C. premiere, but it debuts Monday night on HBO to mark the one-year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8.
At its core, “The Case Against 8” is the story of three amazing pairs: the two couples who were selected to actually file the lawsuit against Proposition 8 and the two lawyers who argued the case. Proposition 8 was the controversial ballot referendum and amendment to the California state constitution that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry, overturning an earlier court decision that allowed gay marriages. With equal appeals to the emotion and intellect, the documentary masterfully captures the five-year legal battle with incredible behind-the scenes footage of the plaintiffs and their legal team at work.
The case starts with a casual conversation over a Hollywood lunch. Chad Griffin is meeting with fellow board members from the American Foundation for Equal Rights to discuss their response to Prop 8. Someone mentions that Ted Olson, the very high-profile very conservative right-wing lawyer, is a supporter of same-sex marriage. A shocked Griffin quickly sets up a meeting with Olson. Griffin is delighted when Olson signs on, but surprised by Olson’s choice of co-counsel: David Boies, his opponent in the historic 2000 Bush v. Gore battle. The two had become close friends despite their bitter rivalry and agree to join forces to overturn the discriminatory amendment.
The legal team then faces its most important and difficult decision: choosing the couples who will become plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging Proposition 8. Two couples survive the intense vetting process: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier of Berkeley and Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami of Burbank. With the principal players in place, the battles begin, both in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion.
Documentary filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White had extraordinary access to the proceedings and skillfully capture the human and legal drama of the unfolding court cases. It’s fascinating to watch Olson and Boies lead a squadron of lawyers in developing their case. Cotner and White tell the complicated story with admirable clarity, but more importantly, they capture the intellectual passion of two brilliant minds at work.
But, like Olson and Boies, Cotner and White realize that the plaintiffs are the heart of the story. As Olson tells the foursome, “You are the case. Everything else is just evidence.” The two couples turn out to be their own best advocates. They simply and eloquently explain why the right to marry is so important to them. Perry and Stier had their 2004 marriage declared invalid; Zarrillo and Katami are waiting to have children until their relationship has full legal and social recognition. In their testimony and in their interviews with the filmmakers, these brave pioneers share the intimate details of their lives, including the threatening messages left by the haters. By the time the film closes with their respective ceremonies (each couple madly rushing to their nearest city hall with a filmmaker and lawyer in tow), there will not be a dry eye in the house.
Unfortunately, Cotner and White did not have access to the defenders of Proposition 8, but they still create interesting thumbnail sketches of the opposition. They are also denied footage from the Supreme Court hearings in San Francisco and D.C. since television cameras are banned in both chambers, but they use a surprisingly effective method to work around this obstacle. The participants simply read their testimony from printed transcripts. This is a powerful and moving technique, especially when Sandy Stier puts on her reading glasses to relive the moment. They also effectively create drama by showing the preparation for the trial, including Olson being grilled by his colleagues as he readies for his Supreme Court appearance.