My initial attempt to watch The Case Against 8 was interrupted ten minutes into the documentary. My 15-year-old daughter entered the room and asked what the film was about. She was just 6 in 2008, so I wouldn’t expect her to know about the landmark decision that occurred early that year. I explained that the California Supreme Court had legalized marriage for same-sex couples in the state. In the aftermath, 18,000 gay and lesbian couples took their vows throughout California.
However, in the fall of that year, conservative politicians placed a proposition on the ballot to define marriage as exclusively between a man and woman. That proposition, Prop 8, passed, resulting in an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage and telling same-sex couples that they do not have the same rights as heterosexuals. In addition, Prop 8 nullified the marriages that had taken place in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.
“I really want to watch this,” my daughter said, words that any parent wants to hear. That my child is interested in social issues and civil rights makes me proud. “But I have to go to bed,” she bemoaned. It was getting late and she had to rise early for swim practice. So I stopped the movie and waited until we could sit down together.
I’m glad that I waited, because The Case Against 8 is not only a riveting documentary about the historic lawsuit that overturned Prop 8, it’s also a film about family. Two of the defendants in the case are Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, lesbian partners who had raised four sons together. They were a family for years before it became legal for them to marry… only to have that marriage stripped from them. The other two defendants, Jeff Zarillo and Paul Katami, are gay men who have withheld from having children because they want to get married first. As Jeff says in the film, “We’re strong believers that we want any child that we have to have the protections that an opposite sex couple’s children and family would have.”
The lawsuit was organized by activist Chad Griffin. After the passage of Prop 8, Griffin and his colleagues formed the American Federation for Equal Rights to begin the fight. By chance, they were put in touch with a man no one expected to support their cause: attorney Ted Olson.
Olson was the lead counsel for the Republicans in Bush vs. Gore, the Supreme Court decision that halted the recount of votes in Florida during the 2000 Presidential election, handing George W. Bush the presidency. Why would a staunch conservative side with this progressive cause? “Marriage is a conservative value,” Olson says in the film. “It’s two people who love one another and want to live together in a stable relationship, to become a part of a family and part of a neighborhood and part of our economy. We should want people to come together in marriage.” Amen to that.
Olson did not hesitate to join the fight. With this heavyweight on board, he made the surprising suggestion to bring David Boies on as co-counsel. Who is David Boies? He’s only the attorney who represented Al Gore against Olson in Bush vs. Gore. Although the two men were from opposite sides of the aisle, they formed a friendship during that contentious time and talked about someday working together. The case against Prop 8 was a cause they both felt passionately about and could place aside political differences for the betterment of the country and even the world.
The Case Against 8 was directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, who were given exclusive behind the scenes access to the case as it developed, went to trial, and worked its way through the California Supreme Court, appeals process, and ultimately the United States Supreme Court. The directors, along with their masterful editor, Kate Amend, combed through a half decade of footage (plus archival tapes) to create a moving and inspiring film. Each of the principal characters is given ample time to inform us of who they are and what they believe in. We get to know the families of the defendants, and we come to understand and appreciate the great thinking minds of Olson and Boies.
Already a hit on the film festival circuit (it won the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance this year), HBO is premiering The Case Against 8 tonight, June 23, to coincide with the first anniversary of the two landmark Supreme Court rulings that restored marriage equality in California and ended the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The film will play throughout the rest of June and into July on HBO and HBO2. Speaking from experience, I recommend watching the film with your family. You won’t regret it.