Gay marriage documentaries writing instant history

HBO, PBS chronicling huge social change as it happens

  • (L to R): Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Jeff Zarrilla and Paul Katami arriving for court. Photo Courtesy of AFER/Diana Walker/HBO
(L to R): Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Jeff Zarrilla and Paul Katami… (Courtesy of AFER/Diana…)
June 16, 2014|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

It took decades before serious documentaries about the civil rights struggle of the 1960s began to appear.

But less than a year after some of the biggest victories in the fight for same-sex marriage, a social movement often compared to civil rights, compelling nonfiction films chronicling that history are already starting to arrive.

I’m not certain whether such near-instant history will prove to be a good or bad thing, but it’s sure to shape the way the fight for marriage equality and gay rights is perceived in future battlegrounds and by future generations.

In some ways, the first films about the legalization of gay marriage follow the path of traditional histories, with the winners deciding, for example, what stories will be told — and most likely will be remembered. But in other ways, even beyond the head-snapping speed of arrival, there are differences, such as a discernible belief by some nonfiction filmmakers that balance and objectivity do not necessarily need to be part of the mix. Will that shift in documentary standards shape our long-term memory of this shared past?

Tonight at 10:30, PBS and Maryland Public Television will premiere “The New Black,” a documentary from the “Independent Lens” series that revisits the battle over Question 6, which put same-sex marriage to a popular vote in Maryland after the legislature made it legal in 2012. The ballot referendum story line is central to the film, but it is only part of a larger exploration of divisions among African-Americans over gay rights and homosexuality, particularly as debated within faith-based communities.

“All the issues I had been looking at since 2008 — the election of a black president, a media narrative that blamed passage of Prop. 8 [banning same-sex marriage] in California on African-Americans, the history of the black family and the legacy of the civil rights movement as it’s living in the black church today — all of those themes and issues came together in that election in Maryland in 2012,” Yoruba Richen, the film’s director, said in an interview last week.

Richen personalizes the grass-roots political effort aimed at getting voters to affirm gay marriage at the ballot box by following Karess Taylor-Hughes, a field organizer for Equality Maryland, as she ranges from the streets of Baltimore to the neighborhoods of Prince George’s County, making her case for gay marriage. The idealism and optimism Taylor-Hughes brings to the campaign and the film are infectious.

At 9 p.m. June 23, HBO will debut “The Case Against 8,” a chronicle of the epic legal effort that led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions last year that made gay marriage legal in California and ended federal discrimination against gay couples as it had been allowed by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

The documentary starts out as a deeply embedded, backstage look at the unlikely partnership of David Boies and Ted Olson, the veteran attorneys who had represented Al Gore and George W. Bush, respectively, in the contested Florida vote of 2000.

But once the legal team decided on the gay and lesbian couples who would be their plaintiffs — Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami and Kris Perry and Sandy Stier — the film kicks into another, more emotionally charged gear.

“Of course, we had this great legal odd couple to start with, but once they picked the plaintiffs, we realized that they had just cast the perfect characters for our film, because they were four just incredibly articulate, real people with real families,” director-producer Ryan White said in an interview last week.

“It was a lot of work in editing in trying to balance the legal world and the human world,” Ryan added. “But we made a decision early on that we were going to make a film that was a character film and not a film about whether gay marriage is right or wrong.”

Ryan and co-producer-director Ben Cotner decided their primary goal was to get “our audience to go along on a journey” with the four plaintiffs.

“We wanted the audience to watch what they went through for five years, watch what their families went through, watch their fairy-tale ending, which, thank God, happened at the end of our film, because it could have gone very differently,” White said. “And then, after seeing all of that, viewers can decide for themselves if they’re happy for them in the final moments of our film when they’re getting married.”

As evenhanded as that might sound, this is not a film that’s objective or balanced in the traditional journalistic sense. In fact, while the film takes viewers into the deepest recesses of the Boies-Olson legal operation, there is not one interview with the opposing attorneys.

“Our film isn’t a film of interviews. Our film is an embedded film following a team of people,” White said.

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