When Gene Robinson became a bishop of the Episcopal Church’s New Hampshire diocese in 2003, it was a watershed moment for organized religion, to be sure. Yet to merely deem the election of the first openly gay non-celibate priest in the history of major Christian denominations a “watershed” is to understate the rather extraordinary significance of a single act that overturned a millennia-old tradition of intolerance.

Macky Alston’s documentary Love Free or Die is a film worthy of that momentous event. It follows the courageous Bishop Gene as he faces a wealth of hatred and distrust. He is excluded from the Anglican Church’s once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, and he faces death threats, cruel hecklers, and more while fighting for full-fledged equality in his church and a newfound understanding of the Bible’s most controversial elements.

Robinson, a folksy native Southerner with charm to spare, is a relentless advocate for LGBT rights, adept at interpreting scripture from that vantage point in a positive and forward-thinking way. Beneath his good-humored exterior, though, is the steel-eyed focus and unbending will of a man who knows he’s on an essential crusade for justice and won’t stop until he gets it.

Sure, we meet the bishop’s husband and his daughters and learn small blips of biographical details. We watch as he wins over skeptical parishioners. But the movie is not some quirky piece about an unlikely clergyman. It’s a story rooted to the here-and-now, an exploration of the most-essential front in what remains the last great civil rights issue. A certain understanding of religion, of course, is at the heart of homophobia. Change that paradigm and you’re on to something massive.

Love Free or Die is also an effective chronicle of a church in crisis. Alston incorporates conflicting, passionate testimony from Robinson’s colleagues to starkly illustrate the enormous schism facing the Episcopal communion. From a dramatic standpoint, the filmmaker has the good fortune of capturing the seminal 2009 Anaheim convention, at which the questions of ordaining gay bishops and officiating at gay marriages were conclusively addressed amid heartfelt public testimonies and a heated debate.

At the center of it all is Robinson, leading the charge that must be led and fighting the fight that must be fought. He’s put a great amount of trust in Alston here, in a sense signing over custody of the cause to the filmmaker. The best thing that can be said about this fine enterprise is that it befits the unsung American hero at its heart.

The Upside: This is a fine documentary, a nicely-observed character study/activist piece. Bishop Gene Robinson is quite lovable, really.

The Downside: Some of the most compelling moments in the film highlight Robinson’s conflicts with his Church and fellow bishops. It’d have been nice to see more of them.

On the Side: The movie premieres at Sundance tomorrow. I’d be shocked if we aren’t hearing about a distribution deal soon thereafter.

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