“We’ve been in line for five hours,” one woman tells a camera crew, as lines snake around a busy polling station. This could have been a scene from earlier this year, when the pandemic collided with primaries across the country. But it’s not. This was 2018 in Georgia, and some people were finding it hard to vote.
A new documentary collects moments like these as it examines the history of voter suppression in the United States, aiming to show how the problem continues to profoundly shape the nation.
At first glance, “All In: The Fight for Democracy” seems like it’s going to be a film about Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who lost to Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race. She tells her own story of growing up in the South, giving a personal look at the laws and barriers that kept people of color and others out of the ballot box. Filmmakers Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés recount parts of Abrams’ bid for the governor’s mansion, showing news camera footage from her trip to the polls in 2018, when workers initially tried to turn her away, saying she had already requested an absentee ballot.
Yet in the end, Abrams’ run for office is less the central story and more a convenient narrative thread. While other recent political documentaries have zoomed in on rising stars fighting to make a name for themselves — think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in “Knock Down the House” or Lauren Underwood in “Surge” — this one zooms out to see a problem that has spanned generations.
That suited Abrams just fine, according to the filmmakers. “I think she had been approached many times about making a Stacey Abrams film about her race,” Garbus said. “And she really wanted to be part of something, but not make it that single story.”
As the film seeks to connect the past to the present, it traces a history of voter suppression that began when the nation was founded, when only a small percentage of Americans could vote, mostly white property owners over 21 years old.
Revisiting events from Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and, more recently, the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision (which declared part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional), the filmmakers present voter suppression as a human rights issue rather than a partisan one.
Woven throughout are episodes from the 2018 campaign. Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state at the time, got heat from critics who said he was supervising his own election and disenfranchising minority voters by enforcing restrictive voter laws that led to large purges of people from the voter rolls on his watch.
When Abrams and her team saw the initial results of the election, she tried to get a runoff but eventually stepped aside. In a speech where many candidates would concede, Abrams refused, instead saying she “acknowledged” the outcome.
Abrams, a former state House minority leader, launched the voting rights group Fair Fight soon after the election.
While the film spends much of its time in the past, it briefly visits 2020, including footage of masked voters from this year’s primaries going to the polls. The filmmakers said they felt those images were important to include, especially since President Donald Trump has cast doubt on mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic. But the specter of voter fraud, which has been used to justify legislation like voter ID laws that can restrict voter access, is not a new phenomenon.
“The pandemic is yet another excuse to create and sow chaos, and the best antidote to chaos is having a plan of how you can safely vote,” Garbus said.
“All In” arrived in theaters Wednesday and hits streaming service Amazon Prime Video on Sept. 18. Garbus is known for the 2015 Nina Simone documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” while Cortés has produced films including “Precious.”