Watching history repeat itself can be thrilling. In a neat juxtaposition, two stirring documentaries about historic civil-rights campaigns — one fresh in memory, the other marking a 50th-anniversary milestone — are airing on consecutive nights this week, a galvanizing reminder of the personal stakes in the ongoing struggle for individual freedoms.
HBO's The Case Against 8 (Monday, 9/8c), a film-festival favorite, is an intimate, exhaustive account of last year's legal battle to overturn California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Freedom Summer, from PBS's acclaimed American Experience series (Tuesday at 9/8c, check tvguide.com listings), recalls the selfless efforts of hundreds of college students from across the country who descended on Mississippi in the sweltering summer of 1964, facing violent resistance in their determination to challenge the segregationist establishment and register African Americans to vote.
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Both are moving stories of unlikely allies working on behalf of the disenfranchised. Summer is especially compelling in its interviews with the impassioned volunteers, many of them white, and local black activists, who were initially skeptical that the naïve young idealists in their charge would take the mission seriously. The disappearance and murder of three colleagues (Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney) reinforced how dangerous their crusade was going to be.
Emotional testimony provides context for The Case Against 8 as the film takes us deep inside the lives of the two couples — female (with four sons between them) and male (waiting to start a family until their union is legalized) — chosen to be plaintiffs, claiming that Prop 8 had essentially made them second-class citizens. What's most remarkable about this case is the dynamic duo of odd-couple superstars who represent them all the way to the Supreme Court: conservative hero Ted Olson, a surprise choice to join liberal foil David Boies; the two had argued opposite each other on the controversial Bush v. Gore decision. The lawyers' regard for each other is genuinely endearing, and it's riveting to observe their united front as they dismantle arguments that assert guaranteeing equality would somehow harm the fabric of society or the institution of marriage.
Societal evolution doesn't come easy, as the students of Freedom Summer and the couples at the core of the Prop 8 debate inevitably discover as they stand up to hate and prejudice to make a difference. (Another fascinating documentary, The New Black, which premiered on PBS's Independent Lens on June 15, examines the divisions within the African-American community, mostly on religious grounds, about whether to embrace the gay-marriage movement as a modern civil-rights cause.)
Such seemingly simple but profound actions: casting a vote, pledging "I do." These films are affecting testaments to what happens when people are told, "You can't."
TRUE REALITY TV: More documentary choices, as OWN premieres the 10-part series Operation Change (10/9c), following the world travels of philanthropists Bill and Tani Austin (founders of the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which provides hearing aids for those who can't afford them), who bring along celebrities to international trouble spots. First stop: Haiti, with Donna Karan, Maria Bello and Bill Rancic helping struggling locals in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. ... PBS's POV showcase for independent non-fiction filmmaking opens its 27th season with When I Walk (10/9c, check tvguide.com listings), by Jason DaSilva, who was 25 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This uplifting film depicts his efforts to adapt to the illness and stay creatively strong even as his body grows weaker.