Telling the story of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases often means poring through personal diaries and legal filings and—if you’re not too late—jogging the memories of those who lived it.

For Ben Cotner and Ryan White, directors of the new documentary The Case Against 8, it meant turning on a camera and watching events unfold.

“I felt like a fly on the wall of history,” White said after a recent screening at South by Southwest in Austin, where the film played after premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Filmed over five years, The Case Against 8 offers an inside look at the legal and personal stories behind the effort to overturn California’s same-sex marriage ban, known as Proposition 8.

Most viewers will probably know how the case ends, but the filmmakers still manage to build tension as the story moves through the courts toward its resolution, the June 2013 Supreme Court decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry, which had the effect of allowing same-sex unions to resume in California.


The movie follows two interweaving storylines—the maneuverings of legal odd couple Theodore Olson and David Boies, who represented the plaintiffs challenging Proposition 8, and the lives of the plaintiffs themselves. Viewers, regardless of their politics, can enjoy watching two skilled attorneys practicing at the highest levels, even as they marvel at the behind-the-scenes access these attorneys granted the filmmakers.

Olson and Boies, who worked as opposing counsel in Bush v. Gore, are entertaining enough to carry the film. But if viewers connect with the story emotionally, it will be because of plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, who convey a mix of vulnerability and resolve in their fight to have their relationships legally recognized.

Stier, after watching the film at SXSW, told an audience she was struck by the gravity of the plaintiffs’ journey.

The film, which won the SXSW Audience Award in the Festival Favorites category, arrives as other same-sex marriage cases make their way through appeals courts across the country. That includes Texas, where U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia voided the state’s same-sex marriage ban in February “in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent.”

Garcia, of San Antonio, stayed enforcement of the decision pending the state’s appeal.

HBO Documentary Films will release The Case Against 8 in theaters June 6 in Los Angeles and New York before expanding to more cities June 13. Its debut on HBO is scheduled for June 23. 

Photo courtesy of SXSW