Stacey Abrams never intended to become a documentarian. However, after the former tax attorney and Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives lost the 2018 election for Governor, with likely voter suppression orchestrated by winner Brian Kemp, it’s safe to say she was angry. And when it comes to the passion necessary to produce a documentary, angry isn’t the worst place to start.
“I am always angry,” she said in a phone interview. “If you remember Bruce Banner in ‘The Avengers’ movie, when he’s in the midst of a fight against the aliens and Captain America says, ‘We need you to get angry,’ he says, ‘That’s my script, Captain: I’m always angry!”
But Abrams is angry “in a righteous indignation, not a hostile way,” she said. “It fuels my passion and my drive to get to engage people and give them the tools to build the world they want. It’s nothing more than informing people that they’ve been denied their rights, the right to vote, that my parents sacrificed for.”
In “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (which opened in theaters on September 9 and hits Amazon September 18), Abrams recalls her father taking her with him to vote when she was 14 years old. Years later, when she showed up at the polls on Election Day, at first her name was not on the rolls. (She stood her ground and voted.) “This is a moral imperative,” she said. “I am always angry, going through the front door to do what’s right. I’m going to work at it, and I’ll have a high likelihood of having some impact.”
After her contested loss in Georgia, Abrams signed with UTA and received many pitches about producing a non-fiction movie about the race. (Abrams has authored four Selena Montgomery novels and three non-fiction books, including “Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose and the Fight for a Fair America”). She turned them down.
“I wasn’t interested,” she said. “I was there. I had ended the campaign and shifted into Fair Fight Action. I had been reliving the last part of that campaign for months. The larger issue for me was the sinister story about voter suppression. If it’s about me, we lose people, because with politicians, voters have a reason not to care. My mission is about voting rights, so people understand their individual power. When it became my story, it’s either a cautionary tale, or an excuse to justify what happened.”
Abrams wanted to make a film that would give young people a better understanding of what preceded her lost election. “Many of them saw something new and wholly divorced from Jim Crow,” she said. “I wanted them to understand that it’s of a piece with voter suppression from the beginning of this country. It’s an all-roots issue. I wanted to do a documentary about the arc of the story that gave them a reason to fight back.”
After UTA sent Abrams out to meet filmmakers, she set her cap for Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”), whose father was a Civil Rights attorney. She and her partner Dan Cogan’s company, Story Syndicate, had been looking for a way into this story, and Abrams opened the door. They hit it off, and Abrams approved of Garbus’ candidate for a co-director, African-American Lisa Cortés (“The Apollo”).
“Liz was thoughtful about the need to have multiple perspectives,” said Abrams. “It was about how to juxtapose storytelling with 240 years of history to make it accessible. It was about how to consider every audience, not just pick one, and drive it home, and tell an all-encompassing story so the audience could find themselves in the narrative.”
Sounds like a producer. “I come from a creative space,” she said. “I think about who is going to read you and why, and I translate that to film and television. I am a deep, avid fan of TV and film. This movie borders on an obnoxious dream come true.”
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Garbus and Cortes understood that Abrams did not want to be the center of the story, but coaxed her into doing two interviews. “To be clear, I was adamant and hostile to the idea of being in it!” Abrams said, laughing. “When they went to talk to my parents, I knew something was up.”
The directors divided interviews and editing chores to get the film done before the election. The movie’s most poignant moment comes during Andrew Young’s interview, when he recalls the battle (told in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”) to give President Lyndon B. Johnson the power to push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “He was a direct witness to that history,” said Garbus. “HIs first-hand reporting gave a lot of emotional resonance to all the archival photos we’ve seen. He’s one of that great lions.”
When the filmmakers sent her the rough cut, they were anxious about her reaction. She wrote them an email: “You did a great job. You were right, fine.” (Said Cortés, “She saw the film as a producer rather than as a politician.”)
Abrams had notes, of course, but “as a writer and an avid consumer, I understood how I fit into the narrative,” she said. “My piece was not shoved into the story because of ego or because it was a vanity project. They were the filmmakers, the way they shaped and added other voices allowed me to be part of the story without becoming the whole story. It goes back to the core mission, which is not a partisan issue but a democracy issue: to create a space for people to come to this and leverage it for their own power. They did that in a nimble way.”
The filmmakers were also grateful to Georgia-born Janelle Monae for coming through with the song “Turntable.” Along with the documentary itself, it could be a strong Oscar contender.
Abrams still prioritizes her voting mission, but she also understands how “the arts and politics neatly coincide,” she said. “I will always continue to express my creative side: I love writing, producing, and I’m working on a TV show based on one of my books. I keep my eyes and mind open to other possibilities. My mission is to never to have to panic.”
What about the looming election? “Don’t panic!,” she said. “Make a plan to vote early. Terrible things are afoot; there are mean-spirited people who think the only path to victory is theft and not convincing. You either convince or steal. Go to allinforvoting.com.”
As far as Garbus is concerned, “All In” is her first horror movie. “In some ways, the story of voter rights is the more things change the more they stay the same,” she said. “The same monster has haunted us since the founding of our country. We sometimes vanquished it, but it shows up with a different face and mask some years later. Some voter reconstruction tactics, like the after-Reconstruction poll tax or literary test, may be abolished, but today we see new tactics with the same intent and effects. While the journey through voter suppression is long and twisty. In many ways it follows a script, even with the specter of the Postal Service and mail-in voting. What happens if you are not Stacey Abrams and something’s wrong at the poll?”
“The face changes, but the power playbook stays the same,” said Cortés, who sees the film as “a call to action. We don’t want to leave people on the wrong note, that there is no hope. The remedy for voter suppression is voter turnout. That is where we lead you at the end of the film.”
Abrams is delighted that the film frightens people. “I want you to be scared,” she said. “And angry.”