In the earliest moments of Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus's timely and vital feature doc All In: The Fight for Democracy, we hear a story from former Georgia House Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams from her high school days, not that long ago, when as valedictorian of her high school class she was invited to a swanky event at the Georgia Governor's Mansion.
When she arrived alongside her parents following a bus ride from their home, she was greeted at the doors to the mansion by a security officer who insistently informed her that she wasn't welcome there.
In a sense, one could easily say that former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp did the very same thing during the 2018 Georgia Governor's race when Kemp narrowly beat out Abrams for the state's top office largely owing to a spontaneous, and some would say unethical, purging of the rolls that largely impacted the state's African-American residents.
Abrams wasn't welcome again, but she's not backing down.
Abrams is very much the tour-de-force behind this riveting documentary that explores the history of and activism against voter suppression along with America's long history of creating obstacles, often in the name of justice, impacting those whom many Americans wished to remain silent.
If you're unfamiliar with Abrams, or at least only familiar with her via news reports, the Abrams you'll meet in All In is intelligent, passionate, well spoken, and acutely aware that even she has weapons against voter suppression not available to those who don't have news cameras in their faces. Armed with knowledge and persistence, Abrams confronted voting challenges even on the day when she was on the ballot when an election worker attempted to deny her voting because she'd requested an absentee ballot.
She didn't back down.
When George Washington was President of the United States, only 6% of Americans were actually eligible to vote. While that number has certainly improved, suppression remains and the obstacles placed into society remain both the same and in different forms. Reconstruction and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments should have changed things for America's Black Americans, but Jim Crow laws invaded the South and outright bans against voting were replaced by poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of violence. In 1965, the year I was born, the Voting Rights Act should have turned America further in the right direction but with 35 states having strict Voter ID laws and some states purging thousands of voters from the rolls, often times even active voters, challenges remain and challenges continue to impact voting nationwide. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Shelby v. Holder essentially green lighted the continuation of voter suppression and the battle remains to ensure that every American's voice is allowed to be heard.
All In has an undeniable progressive bent in its presentation, Abrams' voice one of several to be heard throughout the film that is essentially divided into pre-Civil Rights era voting rights and post-Civil Rights era voter suppression up to and including, rather surprisingly, actions even from the year 2020.
You can't get much more timely.
While one might be tempted to think that life in post-President Obama America would be more inclusive of voting rights, Ari Berman, author of "Give Us the Ballot" notes in All In that “The greatest moments of progress are followed by the most intense periods of retrenchment.”
Indeed, many would say and Abrams certainly affirms that America is currently seeing a panicked majority frightened of the increasingly vocal and empowered Black and other minority voters in the U.S.
In a country where even voting has become an increasingly partisan conflict, Democracy is often taking a backseat even as the U.S. remains the only democracy not allowing convicted felons to vote. It's an issue Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition speaks eloquently of in the film.
While much of All In focuses on Abrams and African-American voters, it's far from exclusive. The film provides early examples of California's resistance in allowing Asians to vote, while Mexican border states have a long history of suppressing Latino and Native American voters. While the U.S. doesn't have an official language, there have always been attempts to restrict non-English speaking voters.
Undeniably, there are those who think that's all just fine.
The film also addresses a current issue amidst the pandemic in dealing with the closing of voting sites and how that so often disproportionately impacts those who actually need convenient voting sites. You can even be turned away if your signature doesn't match EXACTLY to that on file with the elections office.
EXACTLY. That's scary. I mean my signature has probably never been the same twice.
Abrams beautifully explains that “When entire communities become convinced that the process is not for them, we lose their participation in our nation’s future. And that’s dangerous to everyone.” Indeed, nearly anyone who has been involved in politics can share stories from voters who've said "My vote doesn't count." Quite often, this occurs precisely because they've faced obstacles and challenges in just trying to vote.
While All In's more liberal voice is strong, the documentary does include Bert Rein, the attorney who represented Shelby County in Shelby County vs. Holder, and the Heritage Foundation's Hans Von Spakovsky.
All In is certainly valuable in the way it explores history and the Abrams election in particular, though the film could have been even stronger with more in-depth exploration of voting suppression, issues around election tampering, and simply a broadening of the issue. Alternately, a documentary focused primarily on Abrams is absolutely begging to happen as she's a compelling figure and voice that deserves to be heard.
While those leaning conservative will find much to fault with All In, I'd dare say it remains a valuable documentary on issues that impact voters of every political persuasion. There are inequalities in the election process - there's simply no doubt this is true. At a time in America when we're dealing with social justice issues and institutionalized racism, All In is a strong voice and a conversation that needs to be had over and over and over again.
All In is opening in limited theaters nationwide on September 9th and opens on Amazon Prime on September 18th. If you do attend a public screening, The Independent Critic encourages you to take care of yourselves and each other - everyone of all political persuasions.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic