Film Review: 8: The Mormon Proposition

Impassioned documentary chronicles the successful 2008 Mormon campaign to make gay marriage illegal in California.

Reed Cowan’s documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition is actually two separate, albeit related, films: The first is a highly personal portrait of gay couples looking to legitimize their unions in the eyes of society and the law. The second is a meticulous account of the campaign against gay marriage waged by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints that culminated in the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, which amended the California constitution to read that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized" under state law.

The first film rests largely on the shoulders of Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, Mormons who met when Barrick was 20 and Jones was 23. Six years later, on June 16, 2008--the first day California issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples--they tied the knot. Jones and Barrick are so cute and sincere and devoted to each other that it’s as hard to imagine anyone hating them as it is to picture the person cruel enough to drop-kick a couple of wriggling, wide-eyed puppies. And it gets better. Jones’ unaffected eloquence packs an emotional punch that puts reality-TV histrionics to shame, while Barrick is blessed with extraordinary parents in Steve and Linda Stay, who defy church elders and publically support their son while other relatives get behind Proposition 8. Barrick is also a direct descendent of Frederick Granger Williams, a close associate of LDS founder Joseph Smith and husband to three wives; Cowan claims Williams was viciously persecuted for choosing a non-standard marital arrangement. Oh, the irony!

The second film is more problematic. On the one hand, Cowan marshals convincing testimony that the Mormon Church bullied its rank-and-file into tithing money they could ill afford to support the Proposition 8 campaign, used the cash to produce and disseminate fear-mongering, homophobic misinformation, and systematically hid its political activities behind such ad hoc groups as the National Organization for Marriage. He also showcases a damning collection of slickly packaged, Mormon-funded propaganda, ranging from commercials suggesting that the gay-rights movement’s hidden agenda is suppressing religious expression to training videos on working same-sex marriage into casual conversation and televised speeches by LDS elders encouraging the faithful to blog, create websites, put videos on YouTube and use social networking to promote Proposition 8.

On the other, Cowan sources his material poorly, failing, for example, to identify Jennifer Press, a parent so dismayed to find footage of her first-grader’s field trip to a gay teacher’s wedding featured in a pro-Proposition 8 ad that she went to the media, or to clarify the relationship between Emily Pearson, one of the film’s producers, and Carol Lynn Pearson, an older woman who speaks poignantly of her dismay at hearing Proposition 8 rhetoric during a church service. Cowan also neglects to mention that Fred Karger, identified only as a political investigator and founder of Californians Against Hate, spent almost 30 years as a Republican political consultant; Karger’s background doesn’t invalidate his pro-gay marriage activism, but failing to address it is bad journalism.

Worse still, Cowan crams his 80-minute feature with digressions into the plight of homeless gay teenagers, Mormon theology, Brigham Young University’s abnormally high suicide rate and the homophobic ravings of Utah state senator Chris Buttars, who’s given to such cartoonish statements as the assertion that homosexuals are “probably the greatest threat to America [he knows] of.” Yes, endemic anti-gay bias within the Mormon Church is relevant, as is its doctrine of celestial marriage, but exploring them at length is the work of another film. 8: The Mormon Proposition is at its best and most affecting when it sticks to the personal ramifications of religious politics.