Love Free or Die: Sundance Film Review
Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Macky Alston's illuminating documentary examines the life and influence of Gene Robinson, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire, who became an unwitting poster boy for openly gay clergy, helping to advance the rights of the LGBT faithful.
PARK CITY – Despite the insurgent rallying cry implied by its title, Love Free or Die is a probing, even-handed account of the experience of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay, non-celibate bishop ordained in a major Christian denomination. Examining the ripple effect of his actions both in the U.S. Episcopal Church and the 78 million-strong worldwide Anglican network to which it belongs, Macky Alston’s engrossing documentary sheds light on a significant chapter in the broader struggle for LGBT rights.
With the backing of progressive clergy, Robinson’s committed stance led to a successful referendum at the 2009 Episcopal Convention in Anaheim, California, in favor of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy and of consecrating the unions of same-sex couples in states where gay marriage has been legalized. This momentous step was predicted to widen a growing schism within the Anglican Communion.
One perplexing weakness of Alston’s film is its shortage of reactions to that milestone decision from the global community, instead confining coverage to the positive breakthrough it represented for gays and lesbians. That focus, however, fits with the documentary’s mission to debunk ingrained notions that homosexuality and faith are fundamentally incompatible. The film reflects generally on divisive attitudes toward homosexuality in every religion, and the stigma faced by LGBT individuals in many faith-based organizations.
Much of the groundwork for this study is built around Robinson’s exclusion by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2008 from the Lambeth Conference, the global Anglican huddle held every ten years. While British clergy were forbidden from allowing Robinson to preach in their churches, one activist priest, Giles Fraser, ignored that ban. Robinson’s sermon about fear, interrupted by a heckling biker in the congregation calling him a heretic, is among the film’s more emotional moments.
Ordained as a New Hampshire bishop in 2003, Robinson was chosen to deliver the invocation in 2009 at the kickoff to President Barack Obama’s inauguration weekend. Alston touches only briefly on the speculation that the incoming White House administration was throwing a bone to the LGBT community after choosing evangelical pastor Rick Warren, a vocal opponent of gay rights, to pray at the inaugural event.
Robinson has been out since the 1980s, following the end of his heterosexual marriage and birth of two daughters. He has been in a committed relationship since 1987 with Mark Andrew, which was sanctified in recent years in both civil and religious ceremonies. (Robinson's new book, "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage," will be published by Knopf this spring.) The film spends time depicting their family life – the solid bond with Robinson’s daughters, the love and support of his parents, the reported ongoing friendship with his former spouse. This reinforces the observation that for many Americans, first-hand acquaintance with LGBT people is helping to shift public perception.
On the flipside, Alston touches repeatedly on the fragmentation of opinion within the church, where even some of Robinson’s close friends have chosen to align themselves with the more conservative Anglican base.
There are affecting insights from the Rev. Eleanor McLaughlin over the conflict instilled in her by maintaining her devotion to the church while living with another woman. And retired Utah bishop Otis Charles speaks passionately at the Episcopal Convention on his years of enforced silence about the man who is now his legal husband. These stirring voices give Love Free or Die considerable human-interest weight, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs.
The film concludes with the legal marriage of McLaughlin and her partner (at nuptials celebrated by Robinson) and the election in 2009 as Los Angeles bishop of Mary Glasspool, the first openly partnered lesbian to be ordained. The fact that her ordination ended Robinson’s long solo status as the only openly gay person in that position is treated less as a victory than as part of an ongoing quest for freedom and justice.
While Alston’s approach is conventional, his journalistic and biographical skills are solid. One of his more effective threads is tying the movement to consecrate gay clergy to the similarly stormy battle 30 years ago to ordain women. As the first woman in the Anglican Communion to become a bishop, Barbara Harris contributes some amusingly spiky, unfiltered commentary. Her outspokenness on sexism and discrimination within the church suggests she might make a terrific subject for her own documentary treatment.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production companies: Reveal Productions, Independent Television Service
Director: Macky Alston
Producer: Sandra Itkoff
Director of photography: Tom Hurwitz
Music: Paul Brill
Editor: Christopher White
Sales: Phillipa Kowarsky, Cinephil
No rating, 88 minutes.