Film review: THE CASE AGAINST 8, from Built For Speed

The documentary The Case Against 8 takes us into the heated and complex battle to legalise same-sex marriage in the US. In 2004 the California Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage but in 2008 a state constitutional amendment known as Proposition 8 invalidated same sex marriages that had taken place in the previous four years and prevented other same sex couples from marrying. In response to this ruling an organisation known as the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which was co-founded by Hollywood director Rob Reiner, decided to challenge Proposition 8 in court. The official case was initially titled Perry Vs Schwarzenegger as it involved two women Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier taking on the state of California of which the Terminator was still Governor.  Perry and Stier were joined in the case by two men who wished to marry, Paul Katami and Jeffery Zarillo.  This documentary follows their complex and emotional four year legal fight.

The Case Against 8 is riveting from start to finish. It has all the qualities of a classic movie or TV court drama with colourful characters, a powerful and highly meaningful moral cause and an intense courtroom battle.  At the heart of the story lies the disturbing truth that denying same sex couples the right to marry excludes and stigmatises gay people, denies them rights afforded heterosexuals and in effect makes them second class citizens.  The implications of this case for the status and identity of those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community resonate powerfully throughout the film.

Not only is this ground-breaking case fascinating but so are the people involved. The two leading lawyers for Perry’s side are American legal legends: the brilliant barrister David Boies and former US Solicitor General Ted Olson.  Remarkably, the two were former combatants who had argued the case of Bush vs Gore in the highly controversial challenge in Florida to the result of the 2000 US election.  Olson who was George Bush’s attorney was a renowned conservative but Boies cleverly courted him as a way of showing that even conservatives were opposed to proposition 8.  Also, Olson, who looks like a cross between Kerry O’Brien and the Waldorf Salad guy from Fawlty Towers, firmly believed in same sex marriage and in the film notes the amusing paradox that marriage is really a conservative institution and it makes sense for Republicans to want everyone to embrace it.  The plaintiffs Perry, Stier, Katami and Zarillo are also likeable, articulate people who quickly draw us into their plight.

The documentary makes it clear that despite the legal dream team and what appeared to be a clear-cut moral case, the plaintiffs still had to endure a tortuous legal stoush full of tangled constitutional arguments and repeated appeals.  They also had to cope with hostile opposition from some sections of the public. 

Given the legal complexities and multiple appeals in this case it could easily have become a confusing wallow in legalese.  Thankfully, the film clearly explains the details of the case for the lay person and conveys the intensifying drama with palpable emotion. At times directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White lay on the soaring violins a bit thick but for the vast majority of this fascinating documentary the emotion is real and very powerful.

This is a terrific documentary that captures a pivotal moment in legal history with great feeling and humanity.

Nick’s rating: ****.

Genre: Documentary.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Ben Cotner, Ryan White.

Release date: 9th Oct 2014

Running time: 109 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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