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Film Review: ‘The Freedom to Marry’

Variety logo Variety 3/3/2017 Jay Weissberg
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The road to the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling gets standard treatment in Eddie Rosenstein’s solid yet unexceptional documentary “The Freedom to Marry.” Largely focused on Evan Wolfson, guiding light behind the movement to legalize same-sex marriage, the film provides a potted history of the struggle, taking it up to the historic moment in June, 2015 when the more civil rights oriented justices, and Justice itself, prevailed.

Whether intentional or not, the doc inclines towards homogenizing the LGBT community, privileging the argument that marriage is needed to protect the children of same-sex couples — a vital line of reasoning but one that tends to push aside, in a heteronormative way, the emotional bonds of the parents. After traveling the LGBT fest circuit, “Freedom” comes home to roost with a limited theatrical run.

The first 10 minutes give a compressed history of the gay rights struggle together with Wolfson’s “normal” Pittsburgh upbringing (he’s a mensch!), leading up to his prescient 1983 Harvard Law thesis outlining the argument for same-sex marriage. A decade after came the Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision in favor of legalizing such unions, which of course was followed three years later by the heinous Defense of Marriage Act. At the time, many gay rights activists were focused on legal cases they knew they could win rather than the emotionally charged question of marriage, but following DOMA, it became clear the time was right to take this all the way.

Proposition 8 in California served as a rallying cry, galvanizing a number of gay-rightsa advocacy groups to band together to sway public opinion, which hadn’t shifted all that much from the words Mike Wallace spoke in a 1967 TV show, “Most Americans are repelled by the mere notion of homosexuality.” Under the coordinated efforts of Freedom to Marry, with Wolfson in charge, activists launched a campaign to humanize the face of same-sex marriage while giving support to the upcoming SCOTUS hearing, which saw civil rights lawyer Mary Bonauto argue the case of Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, a Michigan couple unable to adopt, as a couple, their five children.

Rosenstein follows Wolfson and National Campaign Director Marc Solomon as they travel to various states and rallies in the countdown to the vital SCOTUS case, culminating in Bonauto’s nail-biting preparation for arguing in favor of marriage equality. If Wolfson is seen as the too-saintly hero here, Bonauto is the sympathetic self-doubter whose legalese exterior doesn’t fully cover an enormously likable emotional determination.

A little time is given to the opposition via straightforward interviews with Brian Brown and Janice Shaw Crouse, whose tired yet persistent fallback to a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity is reinforced by groups of angry God-botherers at various demonstrations designed to “protect” marriage from the pink agenda. At the end, President Obama’s elegant speech following the Supreme Court’s decision is a poignant reminder of a time when presidential oratory made us cry for the right reasons.

Despite a small theatrical run, “The Freedom to Marry” feels designed for TV in every way: It does its job more or less efficiently (we could do without Wolfson’s parents’ friends talking about what a bright boy he was) in cookie-cutter documentary fashion. Rosenstein, a childhood acquaintance of Wolfson’s, is unable to disguise the artificiality of certain “spontaneous” conversations before the cameras.

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