The fight for gay marriage was a long and hard won battle. While the outcome is common knowledge, how marriage equality happened step-by-step is less well known. Filmmaker and queer ally Eddie Rosenstein has brought the 30–40-year ground game to the screen in his forceful and moving new documentary, The Freedom to Marry. The film is playing one night only—March 21—at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco and at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.
In the film, Rosenstein profiles Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, as well as his colleague Marc Solomon, and Mary Bonauto, the lawyer who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court.
Rosenstein informed me in a phone interview for the San Francisco Bay Times that he contacted Wolfson about making the documentary when the Supreme Court said they would take the marriage equality case. Rosenstein and Wolfson’s families were close friends, so he had access to the subject as well as his trust. “We never signed an agreement,” the filmmaker recalled. “He gave me permission to do what I wanted.”
Rosenstein indicated he wanted to tell the story of a man who changed the world: “It takes a lot of effort and perseverance, but regular people make great changes. Evan knew in law school this case could be won in court. That seems doable, but how do you get the court to take the case and prove that people are equal?”
The Freedom to Marry is an entertaining mix of anecdotes and interviews with the subjects, along with fly on the wall meetings at Wolfson’s offices. Some of the most interesting scenes feature advocates talking about the issue of marriage equality with friends in an effort to help sway public opinion, an important component of the campaign. The film covers 40 years of history in 90 minutes, but what makes it resonate are the personal and emotional stories Rosenstein tells.
Two of the most interesting subjects in the film are April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, a Michigan couple who brought one of the four cases argued in front of the Supreme Court, DeBoer v. Snyder. The plaintiffs were seeking marriage equality to protect their adopted children.
“They had a particularly beautiful story with very clear stakes,” Rosenstein said, explaining why he chose them as subjects. “Their children’s emotional and physical safety was at stake. April and Jayne needed to protect their kids. The crux of the opposition’s argument was that same-sex parents are not good for kids. April and Jayne were taking in foster children left in the hospital to die by opposite-sex parents. To say they are less worthy is such a difficult pill to swallow.”
The Freedom to Marry also gives screen time to Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay group. Rosenstein justified that it was useful to include the “other side of the story” in a film that presented the case for marriage equality.
“It wasn’t hard to get him to talk,” the director said. “I wasn’t conning him. As a documentary filmmaker, if you can listen and understand where they are coming from, you can show their journey with a clear heart. I wasn’t looking at right or wrong, but letting him express what he wanted to express and let the audience hear it and let them decide.”
Viewers will be emboldened by Rosenstein’s film, which provokes many emotions as the case and the campaign unfolds. The Freedom to Marry is actually quite suspenseful right up to the final moments when the landmark ruling is made. Rosenstein believed in the power of the story as he made the film, citing that factors like character development and the obstacles faced by the team would engage viewers.
He described his approach thusly: “Films should inspire and enlighten and triumph even if they are documentaries. I wanted to tell the historical story. The trick was providing a road map that felt fresh, yet concise. We don’t have the Massachusetts battle, or Prop 8, or Edie Windsor, or Vermont. Every one of those things is its own film. This is the story of a movement, and it’s heartbreaking to leave those elements on the floor; there are so many wonderful stories. But it’s the essence of the fight that’s important, and that was the journey.”
In taking that journey, Rosenstein has succeeded admirably. The Freedom to Marry shows how these courageous men and women shaped and changed public opinion on why same-sex marriage matters.
The filmmaker concluded, “This story is not over. I don’t want this to be taken for granted. I want folks to know where this change came from. I hope my film starts or continues conversations in an honest way, not just about gay marriage, but about changing the world. Social change, and what it takes, is making things very personal. People need to express themselves. It was a messaging campaign, not a legal issue.”
© 2017 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer