One can’t help but wonder how the looming specter of Donald Trump affected the production of Eddie Rosenstein’s The Freedom to Marry. Filmed over a period of several years, the documentary charts the myriad Supreme Court cases argued in 2015 that eventually led to marriage equality in the United States. True, Donald Trump wouldn’t announce his run for office until later that June. But the film was shaped and edited over the next year before its April 2016 debut at Hot Docs. By that point, the prospect of a Trump administration wasn’t just a surreal fantasy but a fully plausible reality. On its surface, The Freedom to Marry is a boiler-plate puff piece, celebrating the Supreme Court wins as watershed moments for human rights. But there’s a darker undercurrent beneath, preaching that any kind of progress is slow, painful, exhausting, oftentimes tedious, and subject to heart-breaking setbacks.
The central figure of the film is Evan Wolfson, the Founder/President of Freedom to Marry, a bipartisan organization devoted to marriage equality. Dubbed the Paul Revere of gay marriage by his colleagues, the film takes a hagiographical approach to this Pittsburgh-born attorney, detailing Wolfson’s 32 years of fighting for gay rights and his indefatigable spirit. From his earliest years in the trenches fighting for LGBTQ+ rights with such cases as Baehr v. Miike, Wolfson was just as concerned with changing cultural attitudes regarding homosexuality. Perhaps the most interesting and effective parts of the film explore how Wolfson balances his idealistic aims with pragmatic, realpolitik strategies. While mobilizing groups of volunteers to literally talk to and engage with straight people to get them to re-examine their own views towards gay rights, he embarked on a brilliant battle plan to focus legislative efforts on three states a year, getting them to officially approve gay marriage. Wolfson knew that appealing to the Supreme Court’s better graces was a fool’s errand—but if they can take the issue of gay marriage to them with over 30 states on their side, then they have some leverage. One wishes that Rosenstein had focused solely on these near-Machiavellian political maneuverings, creating a gay rights answer to Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room (1993).
But what we have instead is a documentary meant to inspire and elevate. But it has no delusions that the LGBTQ+ victories were pre-ordained. If anything, it’s a call for increased vigilance. I write this review on the day when three 9th circuit court judges unanimously rejected Donald Trump’s de facto Muslim ban. That the decision was unanimous was not insignificant: the judges were appointed by three different presidents representing both political parties. In my mind, it’s proof that people on both sides of the political aisle can come together to fight for what’s right. But their decision was not a simple one. It represented the culmination of tireless work from all manner of lawyers, attorneys, legal aids, and protestors. Yes, progress is possible. But it takes work. And work takes sacrifice. And that’s something Evan Wolfson knows intimately well.
The Freedom to Marry is now playing in select theaters.