8: The Mormon Proposition is a stirring, tragically depressing documentary about the Mormon Church’s massive efforts to support and pass California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative (also called the California Marriage Protection Act), which in 2008 redefined marriage in the state of California as being only between a man and a woman, effectively making marriage between same-sex couples illegal and unrecognized. Depending on which side of the debate you stand on, you will find it either silly and pointless, or obscenely infuriating and find yourself filled with a sense of righteous fury.
I found myself in the latter category. If you’re looking for an impartial review, I confess that you won’t find it here.
It’s an unbelievably in-depth film, covering the history of the Mormon church, a good bit of their philosophies and ideologies, and then their concentrated efforts to pass anti-marriage laws in both Hawaii and California. The film comes at the topic from several angles — from that of Spencer and Tyler, a sweet and sympathetic couple who both come from Mormon backgrounds who live in San Francisco; from Fred Karger, a reporter and political activist who does the bulk of the investigative journalism thanks to an anonymous source within the church; and from numerous fascinating interviews with current and former Mormon church members, politicians (including the current and former mayors of San Francisco), community leaders and other gay citizens and activists. It’s an engrossing, sometimes over-the-top and slightly propagandist film that achieves two unfortunate goals — it creates a sense of anger and frustration and ultimately sadness, and it gives an unprecedented look deep inside the Machiavellian undertakings of the church to force their beliefs into the lives of innocent, loving couples.
The story of Spencer and Tyler is particularly tragic, though no more so than the hundreds of other couples who woke up that morning in 2008 to find out that their marriage was no longer recognized. The film starts with interviews of them, footage of their marriage at City Hall, and then slowly creeps towards the tragically inevitable realization that Prop 8 is going to pass. Their devastation is palpable and gut-wrenching, as they sobbingly watch protests by Prop 8 supporters who hurl the vilest of epithets at them and then have to deal with the aftermath of the bill’s passing and the hideous gloating that came with it. They’re supported by Tyler’s adoring mother, but much of the rest of their family has abandoned them. I’m not the cry-at-the-movies type, but I admit that their story left my eyes a little shinier than usual.
Meanwhile, Karger vigorously investigates the church’s efforts to promote Prop 8. From creating and funding what are essentially PAC’s and ambiguously named organizations that don’t have plainly apparent links to the church, to organizing protests, to cajoling, persuading, and sometimes outright bullying parishioners to donating to the cause, they became a juggernaut of self-righteousness and bigotry, raising literally millions of dollars and mobilizing tremendous numbers nationwide, both Mormon and not, to rally for their cause. It’s all supported by documents, emails, and transcripts that Karger obtained, all showing the insidious, devious, and in many ways ingenious methodologies devised and used to achieve their goal. Adding additional weight and support to Karger’s claims are the interviews with former church members who explain the hard-fisted ways that they were pressured into helping, even when such help was beyond their means.
Coupled with this, Karger and directors Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet use much of the readily available marketing materials that the church created — fliers, videos, etc., all talking about how somehow gay marriage will affect the rights of regular people to free speech, free assembly, and will ultimately endanger their rights and beliefs. Much of it was crazed exaggeration. Much of it was just outright fucking lies.
Finally, the aftermath of the bill’s passing is shown, as well as statistics and demonstrations of what can only be described as a holy war on homosexuality and gay rights. Statistics and interviews about the staggering rate of suicide, drug abuse, homelessness, and prostitution among young gays, and particularly among young gays in Utah, all speak to the sad consequences of their endeavors.
In the end, of course, films like 8: The Mormon Proposition would hopefully change people’s minds by giving them a chance to see the effects of Prop 8 and the innocent lives left ruined in its wake. For those like me, it was preaching to the choir, so to speak. Because (and excuse me while I toss any semblance of impartiality out the goddamn window), Proposition 8 and this film have taught me, or rather reinforced my belief that Proposition 8 was a well-funded, well-coordinated, brilliantly organized and masterminded effort to destroy human happiness and create suffering out of its ashes. There is simply no other way for me to see it. No amount of explanation or justification or proselytizing can convince me otherwise. To try to justify it by saying it’s God’s will, or that gay marriage somehow threatens or weakens or makes illegitimate or less important your marriage is so baffling and idiotic that it makes me grind my teeth down to the roots.
I can’t imagine how I would feel if I woke up tomorrow morning to find out that through nothing but ignorance and bigotry and someone else’s beliefs, that my marriage to my wife somehow no longer was the equal of others. To take away the right to marry is not only hideously unfair, but also mindlessly and brutally cruel. It mystifies me that people can maintain that their beliefs are ones generated out of love when they’ve made a conscious decision to not only cast their vote, but to give their time and money to try to persuade others to cast their vote for a ballot initiative that serves no practical purpose other than to create misery and to take away the from people what could be the happiest moment in their life. It is one of the few times in modern American history that people have voted to remove people’s rights. It is prejudiced, viciously hateful, and unconscionable, brought upon us by a venal small-mindedness and a refusal to understand or recognize people’s humanity.
Pardon me. Things got away from me there. In any event, the sad truth is that Proposition 8 passed, and now there are people left in its wake trying to figure out what to do next. But of equal importance is to understand how and why that happened, to know and understand the gathering of ideas and minds that put a cleverly orchestrated plan into effect that led us to this place. 8: The Mormon Proposition is a heartbreaking film that exposes some very real and frightening truths, but also helps people come to grips with those realities, and teaches them to dust themselves off and get back in the fight.
8: The Mormon Proposition will be released in theaters and on IFC On-Demand in June 2010.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.
This review was originally published during the Independent Film Festival of Boston. The movie is being released in select cities today.