The Case Against 8

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JUNE 26, 2014 5:00 AM

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4 out of 5 Stars

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that proponents defending Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative (passed in 2008) that banned same-sex marriages in the state of California, did not have standing to appeal the decision of the 9th Circuit Court to strike down the law as unconstitutional, ruling it was in violation of the due-process clause of the 4th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. This decision affirmed 9th Circuit ruling and allowed LGBT couples to immediately begin marrying in California.

There is something in that language that sends goose bumps up the skin. Seeing the language of the legal system of the United States, a language that has so often been employed to deny the fundamental human dignity of blacks, gays, immigrants, and other American minority groups being used to affirm it is one that causes tears to well up in one’s eyes.

This is the feeling The Case Against 8, the latest documentary from cable powerhouse HBO, masterfully conveys.

Starting on Nov. 4, 2008, when America simultaneously elected its first black president while California enshrined the second-class status of its LGBT citizens in its Constitution, the film traces the evolution of the legal battle against Prop 8 from the recruitment of Ted Olson and David Boies, the ideological opposed lawyers who argued Bush V. Gore, to finding the cases’ plaintiffs — gay and lesbian couples whose marriages had been invalidated by Prop 8 — through the plaintiffs' victories in the federal district, appellate, and finally, the Supreme Court.

The focus of the film is two-fold. On one hand, the film is a portrayal of Olson and Boies, two of the country’s most powerful and talented attorneys, absolutely eviscerating their opponents at every turn, whether it’s Boies persuading an anti-marriage equality activist on the stand, mind you, to make (and eventually believe) the case for gay marriage, or Olson giving a truly, for lack of a better word, stirring closing statement at the end of the federal district trial.

Seeing people perform at the highest levels of their jobs is almost always fascinating, whether it’s professional football players performing acrobatic touchdown catches or Olympic sprinters shattering world record. It’s no different watching Olson and Boies work legal wizardry.

On the other hand, we have the plaintiffs: everyday, almost boringly normal couples Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier and Paul Katami and Jeffery Zarrillo. The film goes to great pains to portray them as “normal people." We see Perry and Stier intereacting with their kids, Katami and Zarrillo around a Christmas tree with Katami’s parents. Rich Juzwiak at Gawker has a great piece explaining the problems behind this approach, because it hinges its legitimacy on their being “just like” heterosexual marriages, rather than their basic human dignity and, in fact, stigmatize gays who don’t conform to this PR friendly image of “normal gays.” If the film can be faulted for something, it is its narrow focus on the marriage issue obscures the wider gay-rights issue, but in a film that’s specifically about the marriage issue, I guess it’s a forgivable sin.

This is not a balanced documentary. We only see the other side through archival footage and when it is being mocked by lawyers on the other side. But I guess that’s the point. There is no balance on the issue of gay marriage; there is right, and there is wrong. We’re embedded with those who were right.

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