Let me ask you something: What is the responsibility of the legislative branch of the United States government? Where does the Constitution of the United States place the final authority on decisions in our country? Which officer presides over an impeachment trial of the President? What do you call a written statement of things which proclaims what a political party stands for? A tax on money a person receives in payment for labor or earnings from his property is called what? Last one: The number of representatives from each state depends upon what?
Of these six questions, how many can you answer correctly without looking up the answers? You’d have to answer four of these correctly — no second attempts, no resources, no assistance of any kind — in order to fill out a Louisiana ballot in 1963. This is an example of a literacy test, one of many tactics put in place throughout our country to control who votes. This isn’t even the most outrageous or the most current method enacted. Tackling the active destruction of a United States citizen’s most precious right are directors Lisa Cortés (The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion) and Liz Garbus (Lost Girls) with their documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, using the 2018 gubernatorial race between Stacey Abrams and now-governor Brian Kemp as the jumping off point to travel through our nation’s battle to restrict voting rights for all.
Through a mixture of talking heads interviews, news reels, and artistic recreations of events, All In starts in 2018 before jumping to 1776 with our declaration of independence from Great Britain. Considering that so much of the marketing seemed focused on Abrams’s story, you wouldn’t be ridiculed for being a little confused at the history lesson that starts soon after the introduction of Abrams’s loss to Kemp. What you’ll quickly realize is that Abrams’s situation is not at all what the documentary is about, but it is the most widely covered instance, in recent memory, in which an election was so brazenly and so publicly interfered with that it makes sense to use the story as the through line for the documentary. Running almost parallel to the story of her campaign, the audience is taken through Abrams’s story as a child of Mississippi whose parents, both highly educated ministers, who moved to Georgia, continued on with her education, and took on political activism, with each aspect woven into the larger historical narrative of voter intimidation via physical violence, poll taxes, black codes, and more. By interweaving the recent present into the distant past, moving the audience back and forward through time, Cortés and Garbus convey just how wrong everyone is to think that the racism of the past is long gone. In fact, from what they present, the tools of white supremacy are profoundly rooted in our political system and it would take an enormous effort by the public to remove it. Except, to do that, most would have to overcome the vast chasm created by years of disillusionment.
In our increasingly cynical society, “disillusionment” is more baseline than exception, often leading individuals to proclaim something as opinion instead of fact. To break through this notion, Cortés and Garbus present evidence stacked upon evidence to make their case. Rather than just a dry reading of history, they utilize a multimedia-infused style to generate propulsive energy and keep the audience engaged. A powerful moment comes when the various talking heads describe the events that surrounded WW II veteran Maceo Snipes, the only Black person in his community to vote in Taylor County, Georgia, in his local election. They describe him as having fought fascism overseas, so he would not stand threats posted on a flyer as anything he couldn’t overcome. Showing the audience a collage of newspaper articles that ran the story of Snipes’s decision to vote, as well as its bloody outcome, painfully reminds the audience that platitudes of patriotism mean nothing if all of its citizens can’t partake in freedoms without fear of harm. This is one of several lesser moments All In presents depicting our country’s dark legacy of electoral corruption. Recognizing that covering smaller moments in history won’t bear the impact the documentary so clearly intends, they also examine larger moments like the Selma to Montgomery March. Again, they utilize talking heads interviews, news reels, and historical documents to set the stage, except this time, it’s to take a broader look at the events on the bridge in 1965. Via this three-pronged approach, Cortés and Garbus present context so that the audience isn’t just learning about the violent reaction to protesters, but are given an understanding of why the protesters were treated so violently. In this case, it’s because those walking were deemed by local law enforcement to be taking part in an unlawful protest and were physically moved by law enforcement backward. All the officers needed was one person to push back and then, by law, forceful enforcement was deemed within their rights as peace officers. As though to drive the point home about interconnected moments in history, it’s at this moment where footage is shown of recent protests where peaceful protesters were treated similarly by their local law enforcement. Whether they bring smaller stories out of the shadows or present a different perspective on events frequently taught in history classes, Cortés and Garbus generate a documentary that is hard to watch yet impossible to ignore.
If All In sounds like a painful history lesson, you’re absolutely right, yet it’s never a slog. From the moment All In begins to the final credit roll, there’s a boundless energy pulsing through the documentary. It’s partially due to Gil Talmi’s (The Great Hack) score, which is the backbone propelling each story forward, and gets thrust to the forefront when the audience needs a push and is shifted to the background in order to let the words or images take center stage. Cortés and Garbus have also crafted a narrative out of history that continuously shocks and surprises without ever being salacious or exaggerated. This last bit is especially critical because the limitations set upon the Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and other communities is going to sound like a dramatic overstatement until historian Carol Anderson or Legal Director Sean J. Young or Co-Executive Directors of Four Directions OJ and Barb Semans reveal another story from American history that is irrefutable and, in many cases, unconscionable. For instance, the various voter ID laws created and enforced for voting require that citizens have a specific form of government ID in order to vote. By itself, that seems harmless, until you come to understand that there are citizens that do not have birth certificates because the hospital (White) they were set to be born in wouldn’t allow the mother (Black) to delivery there, forcing the birth to take place where no official documentation can be crafted. In Arpaio, Arizona within the last few years, in order to vote, citizens must have a standard street address. This would be fine except that Indigenous tribespeople have P.O. Boxes as there is not an address for the land that they reside. There are very real hurdles placed in front of our citizenry that go beyond this, but certainly do include reducing the number of operational voting machines, reducing the number of polling stations, and underproviding materials to locations considered undesirable. Honestly, without the infusion of energy created by Talmi’s score and some superb editing from Nancy Novack (Grass is Greener) making the switches in subjects flow, All In would leave audiences feeling frustrated and nihilistic instead of pissed off and motivated to tear down the walls of injustice.
Because that’s what we have right now and we don’t realize it. Cortés and Garbus know it, Abrams knows it, and now, with All In, audiences have no excuse for staying home on any election day. If the vote wasn’t so valuable, those who profit most from an ignorant electorate wouldn’t work so hard to keep the citizenry from the ballot box. Keep in mind that the framers of our country didn’t include anyone other than white, property-owning men from voting when the Constitution was created and it required adding Amendments 13th (1865), 14th (1868), 15th (1869), and 19th (1920) in order for the anyone not White and male to be allowed to vote. It wasn’t until President LB Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that questions like the ones that started this review were deemed unlawful across the country. The thing is, ever since 2008 when President Obama was elected, there’s been a movement to repeal the Voting Rights Act piece by piece because “the era of racism is over.” Except it can’t be if those in office are allowed to maneuver and manipulate the system in their favor by way of removing the right to vote from even a single citizen. This goes beyond party. This is an issue of patriotism. If you’re ready to fight to preserve our democratic republic, you’d better be all in.
In select theaters September 9th, 2020.
Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video September 18th, 2020.
For more information on All In: The Fight for Democracy, to check your voter registration, get involved in the upcoming election, or find additional resources, head to the official documentary website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.