“We, the People” may be the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, but it turns out the Founding Fathers didn’t really mean that many people. In the election of 1789, only white male landowners — about 6 percent of the population — was able to vote for George Washington to become the first U.S. President.
America has seen a centuries-long tug-of-war between the forces that would expand the right to vote and the forces that want to limit it. While “All In: The Fight for Democracy” covers the current wave of voter suppression tactics — voter ID laws, voter roll purges, polling place closures — it puts those tactics in the context of the endless struggle.
Directed by Liz Garbus ("I'll Be Gone in the Dark") and Lisa Cortes, “All In” premieres Friday on Amazon Prime.
The throughline in the film is the biography of Stacey Abrams, the Madison-born and Georgia-raised author and Democratic politician who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 and lost by about 50,000 votes. Her opponent, Brian Kemp, was also secretary of state at the time, effectively refereeing the game he was competing in. About a month before the election, Kemp’s office put over 53,000 voter registrations on hold, most of them minority and low-income residents, for a host of often specious reasons. Two days before the election, Kemp announced he was investigating the state Democratic party for alleged hacking of the state's voter registration system. (Turns out the "hack" was just a routine security check.)
Kemp declared victory on Election Day while ballots were still being counted, but Abrams refused to concede, and has become the face of the fight against voter suppression in 2020. The film (which also lists Abrams as a producer) follows her life, and the values instilled in her by her parents that provide the bedrock for her political views. When we see her as a Spelman College student giving a speech at the 30th Anniversary of the March on Washington in 1993, there are echoes of the late John Lewis (who also appears in “All In”) speaking at the original March as a college student.
Interviewing authors like Carol Anderson (“One Person, No Vote”) and Ari Berman (“Give Us the Ballot”), “All In” details the various fights over voting rights throughout American history, from the Jim Crow laws that followed the Civil War to the Suffragette Movement of the early 20th-century. The documentary uses animations and illustrations drawn from the bigoted cartoons of past eras to show the kind of prejudice that disenfranchised groups were fighting against.
It sounds like a lot of ground to cover, and it is, but “All In” makes it engaging as well as infuriating as it explains the twist and turns that led to the current moment. When you read headlines about the current election (such as an influential GOP election lawyer admitting that claims of widespread voter fraud are nonsense, and harmful to a functioning democracy) they automatically fit into the historical context that the film provides.
The film ends with a call to action for viewers to vote, and to support voting rights campaigns. But it provides no illusions that 2020 won’t be just the latest round in a seemingly unending fight for America to live up to the promise it made so long ago.
Stay up-to-date on what's happening
Receive the latest in local entertainment news in your inbox weekly!