'All In: The Fight for Democracy': Film Review

Stacey Abrams in 'All In
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Stacey Abrams in 'All In: The Fight for Democracy'

An exemplary civics lesson.
9/9/2020

Rising political star Stacey Abrams of Georgia serves as both interviewee and producer for Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes' doc about the struggle to attain and maintain voting rights in America.

Engaging, intensely relevant and impeccably credentialed with politician Stacey Abrams onboard as both an interviewee and a producer while Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) and Lisa Cortes (Precious) share the direction credit, documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy opens Sept. 9 in select cinemas nationwide. It starts streaming a week later on Sept. 18 on Amazon Prime.

But, of course, the most important date for the diary, given the film’s focus on voter suppression past and present, is Nov. 3, some 50-odd days on from All In’s premiere, when folks from Guam to Maine and beyond will vote in what has been persuasively described as the most consequential U.S. presidential election in 160 years.

That gives viewers plenty of time to absorb All In’s rich info dump and re-disseminate the content, ensuring that as many American citizens as possible heed its summons to exercise their democratic right to vote. Now more than ever, as the film explains, it’s a case of use it or lose it. (And don’t forget, kids, despite anything President Trump says, you can only vote once per election, even if you live in North Carolina or Pennsylvania.)

The timing of its release matters not just because of the film’s potential capacity to help persuade people to register and prepare to vote. By choosing to complete and release it now in September, having presumably locked the cut some weeks back, the filmmakers have willing sacrificed closure that might have made for a more complete story in journalistic terms. Above all, at this point, no one knows either how the election will turn out nor how many will turn out for the election. But even in the last few weeks, voting scandals have bubbled up like swamp gas that would have further expanded the film’s main thesis, particularly the apparently deliberate sabotaging of the USPS in order to suppress votes for Democrats in key states and districts.

Nevertheless, All In offers compelling visual history and civics lessons that will still serve an educational purpose long after the next presidential inauguration. Deploying a deftly assembled mix of archive footage and freshly shot interviews with such experts as Carol Anderson (author of White Rage) — with gaps filled in by somber, stylized animation from Michal Czubak and the Czwarta Rano Studios — the film unspools a crisp history of voting and discontentment with it in the U.S.A. since the nation was founded.

The film takes a brisk stroll right through it all, from the we-the-people beginnings that somehow only enfranchised white, landed men, through to the American Civil War and then the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, and Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and up to the present day. Seemingly mindful that a roll call of dates, facts and Supreme Court decisions could play as dry for viewers less invested in this subject, Garbus and Cortes draw attention to human stories, such as the tragic fate of WWII vet Maceo Snipes, the only black person to vote in Taylor County, Ga., in 1946, who was murdered three days later by the KKK. A coroner’s jury let the killer walk free.

Georgia, with its long and ugly history of voter suppression, looms large in the film, from Snipes’ story right on up to the last gubernatorial election there in 2018 where Abrams, a lifelong advocate for voting rights, was defeated by Brian Kemp, then the state’s secretary of state. The film methodically lays out all the evidence and allegations of suppression that cast doubt on the final result, decided supposedly by only 17,000 votes.

As she always does, Abrams projects ferocious intelligence and commitment to justice both in the more intimate interviews shot for the film and as an orator to crowds — for example when addressing an audience during the 55th anniversary commemorations for Bloody Sunday in Alabama, a gathering at which former Vice President Joe Biden can be seen just over her shoulder. Indeed, one can’t help wondering if speculation a few weeks back that put Abrams in the frame to be Biden’s running mate in 2020 might have informed the inclusion of so many shots of her and the now-official Democratic candidate for president in the same frame.

However, even with Abrams serving as both subject and producer here, the film generously apportions time to many other voices from the struggle, and not just famous names. That means participants include civil-rights titan Andrew Young, former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, but also justice warriors such as Desmond Meade, who campaigns for Florida’s still-contested enfranchisement of citizens returning to society after prison sentences.

All in all, All In deserves props for offering such an engrossing but thorough exploration of a subject, voting rights, that used to be almost synonymous with political geek tedium but at this very moment couldn’t be more important and significant. Garbus and Cortes wisely don’t try to “sex” up the subject with pop music and patronizing cameos from celebrities — well, not until the very end, at least, as the credits are rolling. Nor do they lose sight of the human dimension that makes this subject urgent, personal and painfully relevant to every American, be they Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or Democratic Socialist. If we don’t protect our right to vote, none of it means squat.

Distribution: An Amazon Original With: Stacey Abrams, Carolyn Abrams, Robert L. Abrams, Carol Anderson, Ari Berman, David Pepper, Sean J. Young, Lauren Groh-Wargo, O.J. & Barbara Semans, Kristen Clarke, Michael Waldman, Desmond Meade, Eric Holder, Marcia L. Fudge, Alejandra Gomez, Eric Foner, Debo Adegbile, Jayla Allen, Michael Parsons, Luci Baines Johnson, Frances Fox Piven, Andrew Young, Hans von Spakovsky
Production: An Amazon Studios presentation of a Story Syndicate production
Directors: Liz Garbus, Lisa Cortes
Screenwriters: Jack Youngelson
Producers: Liz Garbus, Lisa Cortes, Stacey Abrams, Dan Cogan
Executive producers: Jon Bardin, Julie Gaither
Director of photography: Wolfgang Held
Animation: Michal Czubak
Editor/co-producer: Nancy Novack
Music: Gil Talmi, Meshell Ndegeocello
Music supervisor: Andrew Gross

Rated PG-13; 102 minutes