David Zurawik

Gay marriage documentaries writing instant history

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.

"We had access to the case against 8; that's why our film is called that," he added. "To try and get embedded on the other side would have thrown off all the confidentiality and sensitivity of trying to follow one side for five years. And to try to [balance it] in one interview with the other side, honestly, wouldn't be fair."

White also acknowledges a deeply personal connection to the story he and Cotner tell.

"As gay Californians, what happened at the end of our film directly affected what we could do with our lives, what our basic rights were."

Richen feels she presented the issue of Maryland's Question 6 fairly even though she also didn't go about it as a traditional TV news documentary might.

"I always wanted to tell both sides of the story," she says. "I thought it would illuminate the issue. But what's the saying: 'You can be fair without being balanced'? It's not like you have to have a balance in terms of equal time to each side. That's not what I strove to do. But I wanted the other point of view of the people who were working against this bill and working against marriage equality to be heard."

As deeply as I am steeped as a journalist in the notions of objectivity and strict balance, I have to say as a critic that both films do eloquently illuminate not just the issue of gay marriage, but also some of the deeper history and sociology within which it is embedded. And they make you care about the people involved in the struggle. The passion in "The Case Against 8" is palpable.

Richen and White say new, cheaper digital technology is a driving force for the kind of instant history they are telling. But they also see themselves as a different kind of historian — tellers of an unfolding, changing story rather than the authors of some final, fixed version of events.

"I think there is a major difference with this story compared to the African-American civil rights movement, where the films were getting made more in hindsight rather than while the process was happening. And technology is definitely part of that," White said.

"But we are telling a history that's obviously not over," he added. "We are keenly aware that we were telling a story that is one chapter in a long movement, a movement that predated Proposition 8 by decades … and one with many chapters yet to unfold."

Said Richen: "We still don't know a lot of our African-American history. ... Only now is it something that some people understand as part of American history. But it wasn't understood as American history as it was happening or even right after, which is one reason it wasn't recorded the way this struggle is. So I think us being able to tell this history as it's happening today is about the changing times as well."


"The New Black" airs at 10:30 tonight on MPT2.

"The Case Against 8" premieres at 9 p.m. June 23 on HBO.