Ben Cotner and Ryan
White’s new documentary “The
Case Against 8″ –which won
the documentary directing prize at Sundance– revels in a legal procedural
format humanized by a cast of characters deeply invested in their cause,
marriage equality. So intense is the
focus and good-natured heart of the film, made over the five years between the
passage of Prop 8 and the Supreme Court’s decision regarding it, that the audience
cannot help but ride the wave of expertly-crafted tension, despite knowing
precisely what will happen at every step of the way.
In this sense, “The Case Against 8” is a difficult film to critique on the
level of craft, mood, or character development.
It is a well-made, emotionally cathartic documentary, one during which I
unabashedly cried. I felt as though I
knew the attorneys (David Boies and Ted Olson), the plaintiffs (Kris Perry,
Sandy Stier, Paul Katami, and Jeff Zarrillo), and even extraneous lawyers who
flitted on and off screen.
Still, I was left
feeling limp and unimpressed. Stranger
for me, I was left feeling radical in comparison to this film (and I am not, I
would say, radical by almost any measure).
I quickly concluded that these two sensations were connected.
My boyfriend and I
received tickets to see the film at a one-night-only event hosted by the Film
Society of Lincoln Center, an organization which brings loads of international
and independent cinema to New Yorkers. For
better or for worse, though, the $20 price tag cues one of the city’s most
upper-middle-class movie-going audiences.
In this case, it also bred an uncomfortable feeling that The Case Against 8 was the be-all-end-all for queer
documentary filmmaking, and that perhaps marriage equality is our only goal.
At the post-film
Q&A (with White, Cotner, and the plaintiffs), the audience sat rapt in
every word, even those that dripped with an unknowingly normative and bland
representation of the vibrant LGBTQ spectrum.
Panelists spoke about the film’s particular resonance and meaning for
“kids in the midwest” and one even noted that “When you distill it, this film
is a love story.” The message was
consistently one of hope for equal rights, but the insistence on tropes of
hillbilly ignorance and “love is love” complacency (which lacks recognition of
what makes LGBTQ people, even just in experience, different) was
disappointing. More than that, the lack
of diversity in the audience matched the lack of diversity on stage and made
for a particularly disturbing vision of a stilted queer movement focused solely
on the LG of LGBTQIAA…–and a well-dressed, mostly white, and coiffed vision
I was, of course,
among this audience, a white man with the capability and interest in attending
such an event. And I had been moved and
made tense and generally swept up in the film’s narrative. But as I thought more about my viewing
experience, I realized that the moments I appreciated most were related not to
the marriage equality movement, per se, but rather sat somewhere adjacent to
it: the dialogues about marginalization, about finding strength in that
difference. Even the film’s most
emotional moment, the dual marriages of the plaintiff couples, was so for me
because of the ecstatically pained expressions crossing four people’s faces, a
visualized representation of so much pain forged into so much pleasure and joy.
I am not, as it may
seem, anti-marriage equality. On the
contrary, I believe that the ecstasy felt by Paul and Jeff, Sandy and Kris, is
one of the reasons that marriage should be an equally achievable institution
for those who want it. As I said before,
I was shocked by the strength of my feelings regarding the white-washed,
wealthy skew of the film. It is not a
new problem for the LGBTQ rights movement, but it is a problem that we can
easily avoid fixing and addressing. I have been guilty of such avoidance. For some reason–the presence of the
directors, respect for the plaintiffs, the select audience–this viewing in
particular did not inspire a conversation about diversity of representation or
goals, but did inspire a change in me.
One reason, I
suspect, was the presence of Ann Northup at the door to the theater. An integral member of ACT UP who had screen
time in “How
to Survive a Plague,” Northup
worked for many years at a major news corporation before leaving and becoming
an activist. At Lincoln Center, Northup
passed out information sheets critiquing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act
(ENDA) currently languishing in congress and sitting unsigned by President
Obama. Northup, representing Queer
Nation, claimed that we should do more for queer rights in America by seeking a
more inclusive non-discrimination act, one that held more promise for transgender
individuals and strayed beyond what, I thought, this film and this audience
would be comfortable with. I admired the
alterations and Northup’s friendly approach, and incidentally found “The Case Against 8” less admirable for its milquetoast
The film is not
guilty of stagnancy; it ends with a call to action, a manifesto for marriage
equality in all fifty states. But is
that all there is to achieve? Ordinarily
I would argue against naysayers and express my belief that every director is
not responsible for making every one of their films own up to the causes it
could have represented or the people it could have recognized. But “The
Case Against 8,” its limited
release in theaters (and wide release only via HBO), and the image of equal
marital rights which it displays is, in some way, reprehensible. The politics of “What can be successful?” in
the film industry are of course in play here regarding the film’s
distribution. But the content? Its relevance (and entertainment value) lies
in the in-depth behind-the-scenes legal proceedings, not in a progressive
vision of an LGBTQ community empowered by the recognition of their difference
through comprehensive, far-reaching legislation.
I am not sure that “The Case Against 8” could have been a very different film;
its focus is on one case, one cause, one goal.
Nor am I saying that it should have been made differently, with a wider
focus; it is highly entertaining and, as I described above, ultimately quite
moving. I think everyone should go see
it and support a wonderful directorial/editing achievement at the very
least. It is simply the film, and the
movie-going experience that has pushed me toward a more inclusive, more queer
sense of community and the equal rights battle we should be fighting.
So, thank you
directors, plaintiffs, attorneys, Lincoln Center patrons and staff, Ann
Northup, and (why not?) my boyfriend, for the rousing movie and conversation,
and the kick in the pants I needed to stop being unthinking and own up,
instead, to what is lacking in queer representation.
Joe Ehrman-Dupre is a North Carolinian born and raised, but more recently an NYU graduate with a particular fondness for pugs, chocolate, and queer film.