The fight for gay marriage was a long and hard-won battle (one, it’s hoped, won’t have to be engaged again under this new administration). Even though the outcome was almost taken for a given by the time it was achieved, how marriage equality came to be, step-by-step, is a story not widely known. Filmmaker and queer ally Eddie Rosenstein has brought the 30-to-40-year ground game to the screen in his forceful and moving new documentary, “The Freedom to Marry.”
In the film, Rosenstein profiles Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, as well as his FTM colleague Marc Solomon, and Mary Bonauto, one of the three attorneys who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court.
In a phone interview, Rosenstein said he contacted Wolfson about making the documentary when the Supreme Court, in January 2015, said it 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 explained 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,” he said. “Evan knew in law school [in the early 1980s] 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 interviews with the subjects, who offer insightful anecdotes, along with fly-on-the-wall observations of meetings at Wolfson’s offices. Particularly compelling are scenes featuring grassroots advocates talking about marriage equality with friends in an effort to help sway public opinion, an important component of the campaign over its long haul. The film covers 40 years of history — dating back to early efforts to raise the marriage issue in the 1970s — in 90 minutes, but what makes it resonate are the personal stories Rosenstein tells, which carry considerable emotion and drama.
One of the most heartwarming stories in the film comes from April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, a Michigan couple who brought one of the four cases, “DeBoer v. Snyder,” argued as a group in front of the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs were seeking marriage equality to protect their adopted, special-needs children.
“They had a particularly beautiful story with very clear stakes,” Rosenstein explained about 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 that was 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, president of the National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay group. Rosenstein explained why he chose to include the “other side of the story” in a film that presents 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 feel empowered by Rosenstein’s film, which provokes a wide range of emotions as the story unfolds. Despite the endpoint being known, “The Freedom to Marry” manages to create suspense right up to the final moments when the landmark ruling is issued. Rosenstein believed in the power of the story as he made the film, explaining that character development and the obstacles faced by the advocacy and legal team would engage viewers.
“Films should inspire and enlighten and triumph even if they are documentaries,” he said. “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.”
Rosenstein succeeded admirably. “The Freedom to Marry” shows how courageous men and women shaped and changed public opinion on why same-sex marriage matters.
“This story is not over,” the filmmaker argued. “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.”
FREEDOM TO MARRY | Directed by Eddie Rosenstein | Eyepop Productions and Argot Pictures | Opens Mar. 3 | Village East Cinema, 189 Second Ave. at E. 12th St. | villageeas