History is written by the winners. That’s true, but in the modern age it can also be about who’s best at getting their story out there – in numerous cases the full facts haven’t stood in the way of a particular narrative of how things happened gaining traction. In the past few years there have been several documentaries about the fight for same sex marriage in the US, each with a slightly different focus, a different cast of characters and a different take on how it got to the Supreme Court.
As with many things nowadays, there’s been an element in these documentaries (and other media), of people staking their place in the dominant narrative. I’m sure it’s not quite as contrived and cutthroat as that, but I must admit that early on in this documentary, part of my brain wondered whether that was what was happening in this documentary, not because the facts it was presenting were wrong but because of how it threatened to become a fawning hagiography of attorney and gay rights advocate Evan Wolfson and the Freedom To Marry organisation.
Now, there is a lot to admire about Wolfson, who fought for gay marriage for three decades, starting at a time when most people thought it was a pointless fight – unwinnable, dangerous (due to the possible backlash), hopeless and perhaps even the wrong fight to be having (as many felt gay people shouldn’t try to ape a heterosexual institution). However, for about the first 20 minutes of The Freedom To Marry, it’s so laudatory that you wouldn’t be shocked if it went on to suggest Wolfson single-handedly made gay marriage happen with absolutely no help (and he had to do it with a single hand, because he was parting the Red Sea and healing lepers with the other).
Thankfully, after this too-enthralled-to-its-subject beginning, things calm down as it pieces together more of the story, more of the players and the patchwork that Wolfson and Freedom To Marry were undoubtedly an integral part of.
Wolfson started on his quest back in the 1980s, writing his Harvard Law thesis on same-sex marriage. He went on to help with cases where the ban on same sex marriage in Hawaii was deemed unconstitutional, and which helped bring civil partnerships to Vermont. In 2001 he founded the Freedom To Marry organisation, with the goal of bringing marriage equality to the whole of the US – something that at the time many thought was decades away.
Over the next few years the organisation worked on the issue in numerous states, helping to bring marriage and civil partnerships (although always with the goal of the former) to an increasing number of Americans. They did this not just by trying to force through court cases and legislation, but by trying to change hearts and minds, knowing that popular support isn’t just important at the ballot box, but also in what laws are passed and what courts deem as unconstitutional (many argue that the continuing division over abortion in the US, stemming from Roe v. Wade in 1973, is because much of the US population wasn’t ready for it, leading to it becoming a massive wedge issue that has now become as much about conservative vs. liberal identity as it is about the issue itself).
The bulk of the documentary follows Wolfson and Freedom To Marry in the months running up to the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision. As well as the work that went into getting that case into court, there’s also the fact they ran adverts around the country to drum up support, held workshops and other gatherings to help people spread the word, and worked closely with the lawyer who eventually went into the Supreme Court to argue for marriage equality – Mary Bonuato.
Showing the events as they unfolded, as well as the depths of the opposition – including a surprisingly calm and collected contribution from the often more vitriolic National Organization for Marriage president, Brian Brown – the majority of the film is an interesting and inspiring look at people setting out to make a change.
However, while the second half is well done and you can’t help but smile once the Supreme Court decision is revealed, it’s still difficult to not to get the prickling sensation that you might be getting a carefully curated version of the story. That’s not because it’s lying to you, but because the early parts of the doc are so keen to paint a particular version of the marriage equality fight in such a one-man-army way, that even later on it can’t quite escape the suspicion you’re watching a pitch for history to remember Wolfson and Freedom To Marry as the prime movers in the battle, as much as you’re watching a documentary.
Hopefully I’m the one being cynical and not them, as Freedom To Marry was undoubtedly a vitally important organisation and worthy of massive amounts of praise, but the documentary perhaps goes too far in its admiration and single-minded focus, to the point where it feels – inadvertently or not – like it’s trying to squeeze other contributions out and suggest they were the only ones that mattered.
Overall Verdict: While much of The Freedom To Marry is an interesting and inspiring look at a key contributor to bringing marriage equality to the US, at times it becomes so laudatory it feels as if you’re sold a pitch for what it would like to be the dominant version of the marriage equality story, rather than just seeing history unfold.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac