When Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the since-retitled Prop 8 case, went to trial, it was videotaped. Cameras in the courtroom is a vaguely controversial topic in legal and judicial circles, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals established a pilot program for courtrooms in its jurisdiction that allowed for the video recording of cases, presumably those that were interesting (a rare occurrence as trials in general are duller than dull), which would be available to the public.
This kind of program is not without precedent; oral arguments from the Ninth and Second Circuit Courts of Appeals are available on C-SPAN (and geek that I am, I have watched some), but generally cameras in the courtroom are taboo. The Supreme Court is the course the biggest culprit in keeping the courtroom free of video recordings, and the Justices steadfastly (and apparently unanimously) refuse to allow video cameras in even when Congress demands that they do. David Souter famously told the Judiciary Committee they could have video cameras in the Supreme Court when they rolled them in over his dead body. Personally, I am surprised that the Supreme Court even allows its oral arguments to be audio recorded, but I suppose it’s been there long enough (since Earl Warren’s day) that it’s now safe. You can access the recordings if you are so inclined, and again, geek that I am, I have.
Therefore, it came as no surprise when the Supreme Court, possibly afraid that people might want to see how justice gets done in this country, granted the request from the Prop 8 proponents to keep the tapes hidden. Now, it is true that there is nothing in the Constitution that mandates that trials and arguments must be recorded. Nevertheless, it violates the spirit of the constitutional mandate for open proceedings to deny video cameras in the courtroom. In the Internet Age, the only way to watch a trial is still to physically go to the courtroom. Unless you are a criminal law attorney or a judge, you probably cannot do that very often. And if the case draws massive media attention, you have almost no shot of getting in.
Which brings us to 8. Because the Perry tapes have been sealed away, possibly forever, Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter of Milk fame, wrote a play about the Perry trial with dialogue largely taken from the trial transcripts. The first reading was in New York and a second reading was recently staged in Los Angeles and was streamed live over the Internet. Ergo, more people have “watched” the trial than would have done so had the actual recordings been made publicly available. You can still watch it at a variety of sites, and I did so at Slate. 8 is a work of political theater, and this reading (which was rewritten a bit after the first) was performed by, among others, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, the recently out Matt Bomer, three cast members from Glee, Martin Sheen, George Takei, John C. Reilly, Christine Lahti, Kevin Bacon, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Rob Reiner directed it, and no doubt the spirits of Carroll O’Connor, Gregory Peck, and Elizabeth Taylor blessed the show.
First a word about my post title “On 8.” I originally thought to call this post “No On 8,” which was also the slogan of the LGBT rights movement during the Prop 8 referendum. It also would have hinted at some of the reservations I had watching the reading. On the other hand, as a title, it is glib, which I did not want to be regardless of my feelings about 8.
I hate being the gay contrarian, but more than that I hate pretending. I hate pretending that something is good just because I agree with the fundamental message. I hate the idea that I have to go along with the group think and love Glee or Will & Grace (or pretend to) when both are terrible. I especially hate the idea that I should be thankful to those shows because of this flawed idea that since that they have aired, straight people accept us more. (The cause and effect in that thinking is backwards. Those shows exist because homosexuality is more accepted in society not the other way around.) I cling to the stubborn idea that good gay-themed entertainment is infinitely better than mediocre fare regardless of message or popularity.
I did not love 8. The acting was generally very good, although criticizing acting in a hastily organized, staged reading misses the point. This was not a performance, and there really was no rehearsal time (this reading was really just a dressed up fundraiser for Americans for Equal Rights). Only Martin Sheen was a problem; he has gotten even hammier since his West Wing days. For me at least, it was difficult to suspend disbelief because I have heard the real Ted Olsen argue cases, and he is quite a different personality. Olsen is also very level and calm while Sheen over-emoted to the point of turning red. Ted Olsen is many things, but Jed Bartlett he is not. While Sheen tried to turn Olsen’s closing argument into a monologue worthy of King Lear, in my mind I heard Olsen speaking them, and that was more affecting. Dignity trumps fireworks every time. (On the other hand, John C. Reilly’s turn as the loathsome boob David Blankenhorn was incredibly funny, and although he too overdid it, in the context of the actual complete humiliation that David Bois handed to Blankenhorn at trial, it worked.)
I admit that I am a very bad gay in that I don’t worship theater, so take my opinions of the show with that grain of salt. There is something so artificial about theater that doesn’t exist in movies, and I really have a tough time with the artifice of plays. It’s my problem not 8‘s, but it did affect my enjoyment.
I wish a lawyer, or someone at least familiar with a courtroom, had written this play. This is not meant to disparage Dustin Lance Black. I respect his work; I loved Milk and cried at the end. But a trial has its own rhythms, its own patterns, its own language, and I don’t think Black understood that. (No doubt there are a zillion lawyers out there who disagree with me.) There was something about the temporal inconsistency of the script that was just off, no doubt reflecting how hard it is to turn a multi-day, multi-stage trial into an hour and a half theatrical work. I wonder if a non-lawyer who has neither watched trials and oral arguments nor read courtroom transcripts would feel that disruption. Once again, perhaps this is my problem and not Black’s.
What bothered me the most though was the script’s focus on the Perry plaintiffs. In particular, the focus on Kris Perry and Sandy Stier and the adorable moppets who are their sons felt incredibly fake. Or worse than fake, it felt like propaganda. It’s hard to write this because I am writing about real people who are doing something incredibly brave (and risky), and whom in real life I admire very much. But even though they are the plaintiffs, Perry is not about Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Jeff Zarrillo, and Paul Katami. They are merely the vehicles. Just as in Lawrence v. Texas, Perry is about every gay and lesbian person in the United States regardless of whether they plan on marrying someone of the same sex. The theatrical device of an everyman (in this case the four plaintiffs) just doesn’t work here. The trial spoke for itself.
8 is too ambitious for its own good. The original purpose of the production was twofold: (1) to find a way to transmit the visuals of the Perry trial since the video tapes have been sealed; and (2) to raise money for Americans for Equal Rights (Black is a founding board member of AFER). Now it appears that there is a third purpose: to be made into a television movie for HBO that will win acclaim and Emmys by the truckload. That self-conscious ambition hurts 8 on an artistic level.
Maybe the problem is that 8 is not a compelling piece of theater because dramatically it is lacking. I am not talking about the use of trial transcripts because the most effective parts of the show were from the trial and the least effective parts were when the play stayed from the transcript. The problem is that in a battle between rights and wrong, which is what 8 is ultimately about, there is no compelling villain. From a political perspective this makes sense, why humanize your enemy? Because 8 is ultimately political, if cannot afford to make a villain someone the audience would secretly like. From a dramatic point of view though, this is deadly. What is Othello without Iago, Angels in America without Roy Cohn, or Paradise Lost without Satan?
Frankly, who would the gay rights movement want to build up? Those who are opposed to the LGBT rights movement–James Dobson, Randall Terry, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson, the evangelicals, the Catholic and Mormon Church hierarchies, the national Republican party, etc.–what do they offer? What good does humanizing them do? Nothing really. From a dramatic point of view the only effective villain is Maggie Gallagher. Ever since I read the Salon profile of her, I have been both fascinated and horrified. Maggie, unlike the rest of he ilk, is intelligent, and surprisingly enough given how horrible she is, appears to have no actual animosity toward gay people. Yet Maggie has completely forsaken empathy and humanity in favor of blind devotion to a cause.
It was not until I saw Jane Lynch portray Maggie in 8 with fire-breathing panache that I realized that Maggie is a 21st century Louise Day Hicks. Hicks was a Boston politician, and the chairwoman of the all-powerful Boston School Committee in the 1960’s. Under her leadership, the Committee resisted integrating the deeply and unfairly segregated Boston inner-city schools, a resistance that only intensified after the Garrity decision.
When the Garrity decision was announced, Hicks founded ROAR (“Restore Our Alienated Rights”), the primal scream of rage against integration from the Boston Irish. Unsurprisingly–and with good reason–Hicks and ROAR became the face of Boston racism. The irony though is that it is unclear if Hicks herself was racist. J. Anthony Lukas, in his masterful book Common Ground, the classic book about school integration and race relations in Boston, suggests that Hicks was not racist (as opposed to George Wallace or Hicks’s allies at ROAR) so much as a consummate politician who knew her constituency and channeled their rage for her own political gain.
And that to me is more about who Maggie Gallagher is. She is not a second Anita Bryant so much as a second Louise Day Hicks, someone who sold her soul for politics.
There is one final problem with 8, and that is the self-congratulatory nature of the people behind it. I watched Rob Reiner and Dustin Lance Black say that this is the final leg of the race that is the civil rights movement, and my jaw dropped in shock. This speaks to an incredible myopia, which is I am pretty sure is not how AFER sees the struggle. I wonder if AFER will still exist when the marriage fight is won. That isn’t the last hurdle even if it is made out to be. Civil rights is an ongoing struggle that will change and mutate with each generation.
Perry is not the end, but rather the end of the beginning. For years now the groundwork has been laid; everything up until now has been prologue for the fights that are to come. It was important and necessary, but it was merely the start. This year, marriage laws passed by Washington and Maryland will be up for referendum; activists in Maine have gotten marriage onto the ballot in that state; New Jersey’s governor has vetoed a same-sex marriage bill there, and his veto needs to be overturned; preparations must be made in California in case the Supreme Court overturns Perry; the victory in New Hampshire was not close, but it is still no reason to relax; there is movement to try to get the same-sex marriage ban in Ohio removed; and bans on same-sex marriage are up for public referendum in Minnesota and North Carolina. This is with the backdrop of the DOMA cases working their way through the courts, a bill to repeal DOMA in the Senate (which won’t pass a filibuster and won’t get approval from the House), the fights for ENDA, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, housing equality, immigration reform that treats same-sex couples fairly, transgender rights, benefits for the same-sex spouses of federal employees, and overturning same-sex marriage bans in the majority of states.
No, we are not in the last leg. The fight has just intensified. The Great Work begins.