The Case Against 8


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Case Against 8
"An intelligent film that communicates complex legal issues effectively without becoming boring, The Case Against 8 has a lot to recommend it."

In 2004, the Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, ordered that marriage licenses should be made available to same sex couples. It was a declaration that carried legal validity for a mere 27 days, after which all marriages occasioned under it were declared void. Four years later, on the same night that Barack Obama was elected as US president, the people of California voted in support of Proposition 8, a piece of legislation specifically declaring that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. It was a devastating moment for many, who felt that a dream had ended. Very quickly, though, a legal campaign to challenge the decision began brewing, and this documentary follows the five year legal battle that followed.

The battle over Proposition 8 is seen by many as a pivotal point in a 'culture war' that has centred in the US but had worldwide consequences, as traditionalists struggle against progressives. It's a profoundly emotive issue but it's also legally and politically fascinating, and this film - taking a staunchly progressive angle on the issue - strikes a good balance between the three elements. In detailing how the campaign brought together the senior lawyers who had fought on opposite sides of one of the country's biggest ever legal battles - effectively deciding who should become president after the 2000 election resulted in a 'draw' - it illustrates a process of political realignment which US institutions have yet to adjust to, whilst also highlighting the key relationship between contemporary concepts of liberty and longstanding American ideals.

Copy picture

Bringing a human centre to the film are the two couples - Jeff and Paul, Sandra and Kris - at the centre of the case, fighting for their own right to marry. Both have been carefully selected "like in a political campaign" to make sure there are no skeletons in their closets that could be used by the other side, but mercifully, from the viewer's point of view, they're not so perfect as to be boring. Sandra and Kris speak poignantly about how they were married but one day a form letter came through the door telling them it didn't count any more. Jeff and Paul want to give their relationship formal status - and full legal protections - before they start a family. Neither couple has any experience of being in the public eye, so the process of adjusting to it is a trying one - not just dealing with hate mail and threatening phone calls in the night, but summoning up the courage for speaking when they know how many people are depending on them. Never mind the extra nervous feeling that must arise when walking into curt and seeing one's name listed on a sign that reads like a film poster: Perry vs Schwarzenegger*. Of course, it's the couples' naturalness, their humility, that ultimately endears them both to the viewer and to the courts.

Given the light touch with which these issues are handled, it's a shame that film is burdened with saccharine music that makes it sound like a Seventies Disney family drama. This may be part of an effort to make it more accessible to the masses, and to get certain points across to viewers uncertain bout its politics, but it has the effect of making it feel like propaganda. This aside, however, the observational nature of the work is highly effective. The lack of big drama in its participants' lives lets the legal drama take central stage, itself emphasising the scale of the issues at stake (not just marriage but the question of whether or not lesbian, gay and (the unmentioned) bisexual people are full citizens). It also means that the payoff at the end is much more affecting.

An intelligent film that communicates complex legal issues effectively without becoming boring, The Case Against 8 has a lot to recommend it, and not just for those with a connection to the issue. It wisely keeps the lurid side of anti-gay politics to a minimum, drawing out aspects of the discussion that get far less attention and keeping human issues at its heart.

Editor's note: Arnold Schwarzenegger is now a supporter of gay rights and says his past views were coloured by beatings he received in childhood when his posters of bodybuilders made his father think that he was gay.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2014
Share this with others on...
Documentary about the legal case against Proposition 8, which sought to prevent same sex couples from marrying in California.
Amazon link

Director: Ben Cotner, Ryan White

Starring: Ted Olson, Christopher D. Dusseault, Jeffrey J. Zarrillo, Paul T. Katami, Kristin M. Perry, Sandra B. Stier

Year: 2014

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: US

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Proposition 8: The Musical