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Freeheld (Cynthia Wade, 2007)


A New Jersey police officer fights for her lesbian partner’s right to receive posthumous employment benefits in Cynthia Wade’s galvanizing documentary short Freeheld. Opening with a montage of testimony at a county hearing in which the local Republicans dismiss Lieutenant Laurel Hester’s plea for equality, the film immediately sets high emotional and political stakes, but it never loses sight of its personal story in its attempts to raise awareness about its central issue. Diagnosed with stage three lung cancer and told she has less than a year to live, Lt. Hester hopes that the same pension benefits granted to heterosexual couples will be extended to her family. Having given decades of service to the county, the couple finds themselves staring down death with their humble home placed in jeopardy.


This is inherently sad material and Wade shows little shame in milking tears for dramatic effect. She is clearly a biased filmmaker, but Freeheld never for a moment pretends to be anything other than activist filmmaking, passionate about its cause. As the sitting Republicans use bureaucracy to filibuster the hearings and cite cost concerns that do not reflect fiscal realities, all that Wade has to do to make her case is update viewers on Lt. Hester’s fading health. Hester’s slow slide toward death marks time during the film, and more than any other element, it intensifies our need to see justice served. The plaintive, pragmatic argument that Hester makes throughout is so rooted in a sense of decency and fairness that it becomes difficult to understand a persuasive counterargument. Indeed, if Freeheld has a major flaw, it is only that it fails to help us to better understand how one could rationally oppose domestic partner benefits in the first place.


From a technical perspective, Freeheld is not very accomplished, though in its intimacy it achieves the feel of a home movie at times, which befits its emphasis on grassroots activism. At one point, Hester says, “We’re just average people,” and this is a modest film that eminently reflects that. The lucidity with which is appraises their needs is admirable. Instead of sensationalizing the events that she covers or insisting that these average women take on the plight of all who share their circumstances, Wade keeps the unflinching Freeheld at a refreshingly small-scale level. As much a love story as a political tract, Freeheld seems precisely the sort of unassuming work that is capable of changing the hearts and minds of the unconverted.



Jeremy Heilman