Remember how your kindergarten teacher would yell "Stop, look, and listen!" when she wanted the class to pipe down? A good documentary should be something like that—something that makes you pay attention and, if you're lucky, learn something.
Judging by that elementary standard, the film 8: The Mormon Proposition mostly flunks out. The film is a messy and sometimes downright cheesy look at how the Mormon Church influenced the 2008 California ballot initiative outlawing gay marriage. Elections are admittedly not an easy subject to dramatize, which was one reason that the 2008 HBO film Recount was such a revelation. The Mormon Proposition drags out the predictable participants: the gay couples angered by the prospect of losing their rights, the starchy Mormon men who cajole (or threaten) their parishioners into contributing to the anti-marriage campaign, the spit-flying arguments between gay protestors and the conservatives who love to hate them, etc.
It is not, unsurprisingly, a fair fight. The film, directed by Reed Cowan and narrated by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, turns the debate into the usual game of good versus evil: the gays cry a lot and are largely sympathetic; the Mormons are often shot in a sort of flat, monochromatic palette designed to make them look like they're auditioning to be Professors of the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. It seems impossible that anyone will have their minds changed or even piqued by watching this film. No one will really listen to The Mormon Proposition because we’ve heard it all before.
Perhaps that was inevitable: in the Michael Moore era of documentaries, the audience is always preselected, so the film might as well play to the crowd. The funny thing is that in its last 20 minutes The Mormon Proposition turns into a lacerating, shocking, and sadly overpowering film—the kind of film that might make even fundamentalists reconsider gay rights. This is the section where the movie essentially stops talking about Prop 8 and starts talking about how the Mormon church's attitude toward homosexuality in general. We meet the families of young gay men who killed themselves—including one symbol-conscious man who shot himself in a church—because its families rejected them. We hear from Mormon men who describe the shock-therapy techniques used on them by church members—Christian-minded procedures like showing gay pornography while force-feeding ipecac, attaching electrodes to genetalia, and lobotomies.
What the film does by ending this way is subtly draw a line from opposition to gay marriage to homophobic insanity. Sure, semi-reasonable people can disagree about whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry—if your whole religious worldview is built on the concept of hetereosexual unions, letting go isn’t easy. But when you start taking rights away from people (which is what Prop 8 did in California), when you start implying that some people are less equal than others, you allow a sort of trickle-down hatred that seeps into all our lives. At its best, which is only at the end, The Mormon Proposition reminds us—no, insists that we remember—that demonizing a group doesn’t make the world a better place. But allowing people to be happy does.