The Case Against 8 Review

(3.5 STARS)

Documentaries of well-covered (or heavily covered, depending on your view on the state of professional journalism) subjects too often feel disposable because those in charge don’t use the medium to make their take on the story unique.

A perfect example of this would be 2013’s complementary films about the anti-homosexual agenda in the nation of Uganda. Call Me Kuchu brought us into the lives of the men and women on the ground in Uganda fighting sometimes in secret for equal rights against a fire-breathing establishment agenda. God Loves Uganda, meanwhile, is extremely well-intentioned, but never does more than skim the surface of the evangelical American involvement in this international human rights crisis. Both films crescendo to the same funeral, even going so far to use the same archival footage, but the emotional impact couldn’t feel more different. In God Loves Uganda, you’re an outsider, saddened by what’s transpired. In Kuchu, you’re a member of the community—distraught, inconsolable.

The Case Against 8, a new documentary from HBO Films that premiered at Sundance 2014, takes the Call Me Kuchu approach and embeds you the viewer with the lawyers and (more impactfully) the couples taking the state of California to court over its referendum to overturn marriage equality in 2008. Though the film covers five years worth of trials and appeals, it never feels like a Cliff’s Notes take on the battle, nor does it ever get bogged down in legalese. The back room strategizing is interesting and a fine way to cut across time. The talking heads with the two gay couples at the center of the suit, as well as the surprising pair of counselors leading their case, is where the film feels essential.

So who are these people? Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami are two men who want to get married. Kris Perry and Sandy Stier are two women who want to get married. Ted Olsen and David Boies are two prominent attorneys who want these people to be able to get married. At least in the case of the two couples, their stories are varied. Sandy was previously married to a man, and both she and Kris brought two sons each to their later-in-life partnership. Jeffrey and Paul, meanwhile, are waiting to have kids until they’re married. Ted and David, meanwhile, rose to national consciousness fighting on either side of the Bush v. Gore case that went to the Supreme Court in the waning days of the year 2000. Yes, one of the men who is fighting on the highest level for marriage equality is the same man who gave us George W. Bush.

The dynamic between him (Olsen) and Boies isn’t the heart of the film, but it’s easily the source of the film’s most compelling material. If you’re like me and knew the case existed and not much else, the leadership provided by these two is surprising, admirable, and often quite funny. The idea that two men bonded over their deep and intense professional antagonism is wild, and their new friendship (not to mention Olsen’s willingness to buck his party so brazenly) is also a little inspiring in a political era when partisanship reigns supreme.

Ultimately, though, the film is about the couples and their case. It’s a little hard to fathom it because recent events rarely carry the weight of what’s taught in history books, but these four are compared to civil rights leaders of the 1960s, and it’s not hard to see the parallels. One day—not far off, I’d imagine—we’ll look back on a time when gay marriage was frowned upon and illegal and feel shame. And when that time comes, we’ll be happy we have a living, breathing document like this that guides us through a crucial transition period for gay rights (and human rights more broadly) with openness and empathy.

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