New Documentary Spotlights Drama Behind US v. Windsor

The story behind the story of the most important gay-rights legal decision of our time.

The late trailblazer Edie Windsor. Photo: Cinematic Red.

With the release of her new documentary, called To a More Perfect Union: US v. Windsor, I recently posed questions to filmmaker Donna Zaccaro about the film and its sociopolitical context.

As a longtime producer for NBC’s Today, Zaccaro enjoyed a front-row seat for politics and social movements, but for her it was also a family thing: her first documentary, the award-winning Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way, was about her mother, a Congresswoman who became the first woman nominated for a major-party national ticket. Ferraro was Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate in 1984 against Ronald Reagan of the GOP and his running mate, future president George H.W. Bush.

Zaccaro’s new film, carefully crafted and deeply touching, is about the late Edith Windsor, whose Canadian marriage to Thea Spyer formed the basis of the lawsuit that essentially made same-sex marriage allowable in the US. It traces the wrenching, courageous and triumphant personal story of a couple struggling with the consequences of a bold union that began in the 1960s — and the attorney, Roberta Kaplan, who took on the case after Spyer’s death. To do the subject justice, Zaccaro also touches on the history of America’s gay rights movement as what set the stage for this legal step toward social justice.

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David Terrell: The film is a beautifully rendered story about the overdue triumph of justice. It has to do with a changing society and the evolution of legal views that necessarily accompanied that change. Needless to say, we’ve seen more changes, including some ugly ones, since the conclusion of the Windsor case. Trump’s election cannot be construed as a response to Windsor, but surely the progress of justice for same-sex couples is part of the milieu against which we’re witnessing a backlash. Is it time for another film? Is it always time?

Donna Zaccaro: I’m so glad you liked the film — and see it as telling a story about the overdue triumph of justice. I don’t believe that Trump’s election can be construed as a response to Windsor, either — though I do agree that the progress of justice for same-sex couples is part of why there has been a cultural backlash certainly by his core supporters. I would argue that that is why it is so important, particularly for those feeling culturally alienated or opposed to what we consider the progress of justice, to see To A More Perfect Union. One of my principal goals for the film was to show that love is love, marriage is marriage; that gay parents have the same hopes, dreams, and concerns for their children and want the same things for and from their families and relationships as do straight Americans. I also wanted to show that each person deserves dignity and equality — and, by providing it, that our country is stronger. Though the principal story is about the pivotal case in the marriage-equality movement, I see it more as a story about the latest chapter in the civil rights movement in this country. I don’t know that it’s time for another film — though, of course, we could do another film — so much as I think the story of the Windsor case, and both Edie Windsor and Robbie Kaplan’s personal stories, need to be told and known in order to understand the history behind them, the impact that their quest for justice has had, and embrace the progress that we believe has been made.

DT: What can we learn from the social movement that culminated in Windsor? One of the points in the film that you make quite forcefully is that society’s changes in attitude toward gay couples seemed abrupt, but it had a history — though not a long history. Can we learn something from how this happened? Are there any lessons, for example, for a women’s movement that still struggles, or a gun-control movement stuck in neutral for 30 years?

DZ: Society’s changes in attitude toward gay couples did have a decades-long history with activists tirelessly working to promote that shift — but the AIDS crisis really propelled it forward more than anything else. As addressed in the film, with the AIDS crisis gays could no longer remain closeted because they were sick and dying; and straight America was suddenly confronted with the fact that family members, friends and colleagues were gay who they didn’t know were gay — and these were people they loved and respected. That, coupled with more and more celebrities being either forced or deciding to come out, really accelerated the shift. With respect to the women’s movement, there really hasn’t been a similar crisis to unify women behind and to bring men in to support, so women don’t vote as a block or necessarily uniformly for women or women’s issues in the way that ethnic and religious groups tend to. The #MeToo movement seems the most galvanizing impetus for the women’s movement — as the Parkland massacre is to the gun control movement. Maybe both of these will be tipping points.

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DW: I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s down South where, I think, people imagine prejudice of all kinds to be strong and perhaps insuperable. Yet prejudice against homosexuals, in my experience, was mostly expressed in a kind of guilty humor. People knew better, in their hearts, than to condemn people for their very nature. I suspect this was the case everywhere. How do we convert vague moral recognition to tolerance — and then to personal responsibility? How are people imbued with courage?

DZ: I am certainly no expert on this, but it seems to me that when people start demanding respect and to be seen for who they are, those who have been prejudiced against them are forced to examine their own motivations and either acknowledge their prejudice and make a decision one way or the other concerning whether they believe that prejudice has validity or not. Stonewall — gays standing up to police harassment — catalyzed the modern gay rights movement; the Windsor case and decision were the result of one woman standing up to the government and demanding that it acknowledge, recognize and dignify her and her relationship with her love of 44 years.

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DT: For people in politics, politics is ubiquitous. For people in the arts, everything is creative expression — or at least an opportunity for artistic expression. Do you view this film in any way as blending arts and politics? And which, arts or politics, is more important in your own life and filmmaking? Are you trying to make beautiful films or important films or both?

DZ: I see myself as more of a journalist and storyteller than an artist. That said, both art and politics are important to my life — and I believe documentary film provides a means by which to impact the telling of what I consider an important story. The artistry is in crafting it so it can tell many different aspects of a story in an interesting and compelling way — which I see very much like a collage. I am always looking for personal stories to tell that illustrate a bigger history and point. My production company, Ferrodonna Features, is a nonprofit with a mission to create films about women, women’s issues and social justice, as I believe there’s a paucity of stories about, and with, women heroes. Ultimately, we hope all of our films will be embraced by and used in the educational market — women’s history, gender studies and American political history.

DT: What does the immediate future holds for filmmakers like you? What do you want your place to be in it?

DZ: I hope documentary filmmakers like me can further shape the cultural conversation by having our films be seen by wider audiences. Certainly with more outlets for distribution and with the greater use and adoption of technology, there is greater access to our contentand seemingly more interest in audiovisual storytelling than print than ever before.