Though it’s incredibly painful to revisit, Stacey Abrams’ unsuccessful bid for the Georgia governorship is a crucial and blatant example of voter suppression doing its most pernicious work. As “All In: The Fight for Democracy” makes painstakingly clear, if we don’t sit up and pay attention, her unjust defeat could be a harbinger of what’s to come. The new documentary, directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés and produced by Abrams, offers an accessible primer on the history of voter suppression in the United States. Anyone with a passing knowledge of voting rights won’t find much new information in the film, but it’s a rousing and well crafted piece of educational media that takes aim at what research has found to be its most crucial audience: Young voters.
At times, “All In: The Fight for Democracy” plays like a survey for an introductory class in voting rights — a noble aim, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily make for inspired filmmaking. The film’s most moving points are its flashes of humanity, which reveal the personal toll that racism and racist voting policies take. Abrams’ own narrative is especially illuminating; as a skilled rhetorical politician she is an expert at weaving her story into broader themes. An anecdote about nearly being turned away from a visit to the governor’s mansion when she was high school valedictorian is illustrated with simple yet effective animation; and footage of a 19-year-old Abrams speaking at the 30th Anniversary March on Washington in 1993 is kind of incredible, especially as she recalls how nervous she was that day.
As the film explains the various ways poor and non-white Americans have been systematically excised from participating in the most fundamental building block of democracy, its on the ground footage of voter outreach illustrates the ripple effect of years of minority citizens feeling like their votes don’t matter. During one brief encounter, a young Latinx man appears sheepish about the fact that he has never voted. As he struggles to explain his reasoning to a friendly volunteer, it’s clear he feels uneasy about everything to do with the electoral process. Outside one polling place, an elderly Black woman has to go home to take her medication after waiting hours to vote.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
As a historical survey, the film begins with the 15th Amendment and the Reconstruction era, which saw Black Southerners exercising their right to vote and electing as many as 1500 Black officeholders across federal, state, and local governments. It then charts the 100-year history of Jim Crow, highlighting the 1946 murder of Maceo Snipes, a WWII veteran who was shot by four white men shortly after becoming the first Black man to vote in Taylor County. Carol Anderson, professor of African American Studies at Emory University and an impressive presence in the film, posits that the righteous outrage during this period fueled the Civil Rights Movement, leading eventually to Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The dismaying ebb and flow of justice is a major point in the film, with multiple pundits noting that periods of swift progress are often followed by equally if not more stringent rollbacks. Such was the case with Jim Crow following Reconstruction, and now with the egregious Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which stripped the Voting Rights Act of two pivotal provisions, thus paving the way for rampant voter suppression laws to pop up all over the country. Anderson calls the period since the 2013 decision “Jim Crow 2.0”, and the film makes a strong case to support the comparison as it tracks recent surges in voter purging, gerrymandering, and poll closures.
Once again, the most illuminating example of how pernicious voter suppression can be involves Abrams’ personal experience. Before he was her opponent in the gubernatorial race, Georgia governor Brian Kemp implemented restrictive election laws during his time as Georgia’s Secretary of State. When Abrams is ready to cast her vote during the 2018 election, camera crews and adorable small child in tow, a well-meaning election official says she can’t vote in person because she applied for an absentee ballot.
Even in its brevity and without sound, the footage is uncomfortable to watch. Abrams’ own account of the day is emotionally removed, though the moment had to have been painful. If the film had really gone “All In,” it might have drawn the curtain further on this ominous scene (there must be footage with sound), embarrassing as it may have been for Abrams. Documentaries are only as good as their subjects are vulnerable, and Abrams is still a politician. After all, she’s not trying to win awards — she’s trying to win elections. And maybe save democracy along the way.
“All In: The Fight for Democracy” is in select theaters now, and will start streaming on Amazon Prime on Friday, September 18.
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