“You are the case … it all flows through you”
It’s a landmark case with civil rights reverberations that have shaken the country on its way to a current thirty-seven states legalizing same-sex marriage and counting. But that doesn’t mean the public knows what happened since the US Supreme Court barred cameras from allowing them to watch as Hollingsworth v. Perry (also known as Perry v. Schwarzenegger) unfolded. This is where Ben Cotner and Ryan White come in with a wealth of behind the scenes footage and full access to the unlikely law team of Ted Olson and David Boies as well as the courageous couples who volunteered to be the faces of the LGBT community of California fighting to erase Proposition 8: Kristin M. Perry and Sandra B. Stier, Jeffrey J. Zarrillo and Paul T. Katami. Now we’re able to watch as history was made.
The whole idea that the state of California would push through something as morally reprehensible as Prop 8 by popular vote is crazy to me. But it just goes to show how bi-partisan the issue is when a known liberal populace could void US citizens’ marriages with the press of a button. An even better example of just how deep the issue goes beyond politics, however, comes from The Case Against 8‘s first stop along the road to a Supreme Court appearance. Because the American Foundation for Equal Rights approached someone who on paper was completely the wrong person for the job: Ted Olson. The man who fought in America’s highest court to win George W. Bush the 2000 election was going to jump ship and fight for the LGBT community? That was the media’s take.
It did seem unlikely and some labeled him a mole infiltrating their ranks, but Olson proved a compassionate human being who understood the injustice on Americans’ right to the “pursuit of happiness” Prop 8 delivered. Listening to him say how this case will be the most important achievement of his career is to hear a man filled with optimism and hope for mankind. It’s a truth mirrored in Jeff and Paul’s parents answering whether they supported their sons diving headfirst into the media spotlight. Of course they did. At the end of the day, whether religious beliefs conflict with the realities of the world or not, love finds a way to become a central motivation washing all the noise away. When Jeff’s mother says Paul is exactly the person she hoped her son would find, it’s profoundly gender-blind.
From there the story gets crazier as the man on the other side of Bush v. Gore joins Olson to be his second chair. It’s great to hear Olson and Boies talk about their friendship blossoming while opposing the other years previously because it’s done with respect, humor, and authenticity. Cotner and White’s greatest success with this film is their showing the people and personalities involved in the case rather than merely explaining procedures and motions. The issue isn’t one solely about rhetoric or hypotheticals—there are actual people to whom Prop 8 affects in a very real and horrifying way. We meet Perry and Stier’s four sons, hear Jeff and Paul’s sound decisions to not willfully acknowledge the state’s demarcation of them as second-class citizens, and understand the charged emotionality every step forward conjures.
The directors were handcuffed considering there wasn’t footage of the trial itself, but that shouldn’t diminish their efficacy at getting around it. Sometimes they show the six principles reading from transcripts and explaining their motivations, realizations, or purely in-the-moment actions on the page. Sometimes clips play from filmed depositions of defense witnesses and that of the plaintiffs practicing cross-examination answers to give a taste of what occurred behind closed doors without being there. And in all honesty, this is the interesting stuff anyway—especially with a case where so many witnesses backed out before ever taking the stand. I would love to see Boies completely reverse David Blankenhorn‘s same-sex marriage opinion on the stand, but it’s almost just as good hearing Olson describe the mind-blowing experience it was watching the defense’s key witness jump sides.
Focusing on the original trial in the US District Court for the Northern District of California is key to providing as much detail into what went on even if the venue wasn’t as large as the Supreme Court. Everything that happens after this initial verdict becomes a case against the result rather than a reevaluation of the particulars since each tier doesn’t birth a retrial. The meat then comes from Olson and Boies’ team discovering facts, searching for the elusive William Tam, pushing their plaintiffs to tears so they’re ready, and the adrenaline rush of their recounting every single direct hit launched towards Charles Cooper and Yes for Prop 8. Judge Vaughan Walker’s decision becomes a new truth to be overruled, something next to impossible despite the fight taking four years to finally conclude.
And while the trial’s scope expands across the country, watching its effect on Kristin/Sandra and Jeff/Paul gives a human entry point to those who don’t understand the reality of Prop 8 beyond hateful ad campaigns and media coverage. The fact they need one is a sad fact, but people are changing their minds and building hope that America can conquer its history rife with prejudice once and for all. These couples’ journeys don’t end with the verdict either. Their years of abusive phone calls, community and familial support, and dreams to be married like so many straight couples are can only culminate with the words, “I do”. Hopefully seeing the fight’s process and the case’s legal basis can help convert any holdouts into acknowledging how there never should have been a question in the first place.