The battleground is set this election season for one of the USA’s biggest fights. Democracy itself is at stake when Americans head to the polls on November 3rd or cast their votes beforehand. With their essential documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, directors Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés urgently remind Americans of their responsibility to exercise their right to vote.
All In finds a chilling omen for the election season of 2020 in the story of Stacey Abrams. The former member of the House of Representatives’ narrow defeat in Georgia’s gubernatorial race fuels the film’s larger essay on the history of voter suppression in America. The doc outlines how Abrams’ contested loss featured flagrant interference from the office of Republican contender Brian Kemp, who, as Georgia’s secretary of state, was in charge of overseeing voter registration in an election for which he was a candidate. All In positions Abrams’ case as but another cycle in the nation’s wider violence against the voting rights of Black Americans and other minority groups.
The film surveys the history of voter suppression in the USA, which is sadly as wide-ranging as the legacy of democracy itself. Featuring a mix of academics and civil rights leaders alongside Abrams, All In unpacks the ways in which voter suppression mutates, finding pervasive techniques to rig a system in favour of an autocratic few. From Black Codes, to the history of Reconstruction, the film traces the vicissitudes through which many Americans, particularly Black Americans, experience violence simply for seeking to exercise their most basic democratic right. Abrams lends the film a hopeful arc as she embodies the wave of underdog candidates rising up to provide a voice for the people.
Garbus, a two-time Oscar nominee (The Farm: Angola, USA and What Happened, Miss Simone?), and Cortés, a veteran music producer, film producer with credits including the Oscar-winning Precious, and film director (The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion) make a film that perfectly captures the stakes of the fight for democracy in 2020. The directors joined POV by phone ahead of the release of All In to discuss their project, working with Stacey Abrams, and rallying Americans for the fight of their lives.
POV: Pat Mullen
LC: Lisa Cortés
LG: Liz Garbus
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: Stacey Abrams tells a great story in the film about how her parents would take her to go vote, saying they would dress up and make an occasion of it. How did your parents instil within you a sense of democratic responsibility?
LC: I have vivid memories of being four and five years old and voting with my mother. It was something we dressed up for. My mother gave me the background for what we were doing and why it was important. I remember her taking me into the booth and putting her hand over mine as we pulled the lever to exercise our vote together.
LG: Before I was born, my father was a lawyer working for the Roger Baldwin Foundation at the ACLU. An important case for him early in his career was the case of Henrietta Wright, who was a Black woman in Mississippi. Twenty days after the first passage of the Voting Rights Act, she went to her courthouse wearing her Black Power button and registered to vote. She drove back to the apartment where she lived, behind the diner that she and her husband managed. Before she could make her way into the house, the sheriff pulled up and arrested her for allegedly missing a stop sign. She was brought to jail where she was beaten and then put into a mental institution the next morning.
I am white and part of white privilege means going to the polls and not having long lines. It means not having people look you up and down and question your eligibility. Because I heard this story around the dinner table from an early age, I understood that that privilege was not afforded to all Americans.
POV: Were you looking at the larger story of voter suppression when the Georgia election happened, or was that the event that trigged the film?
LG: Many of us were watching it closely and Stacey was such a hopeful candidate. I thought that she could win despite having some awareness of what was going on with her opponent. But the film started when Stacey came to meet with me and some of the other members of the Story Syndicate team to talk about making a film. I quickly with partnered with Lisa and we took it from there, but the impetus came from Stacey herself.
POV: What inspired the collaboration between you two?
LG: I knew Lisa from so many film circles and I knew about her stellar reputation. My husband [Dan Cogan] had just worked with her on the film that she made with Roger Ross Williams about the Apollo Theatre, so I had recently seen her work and knew she had started directing. It was an extraordinary fit. From our first conversation, I could tell she was equally passionate and would be a great leader within Story Syndicate for this project.
*LC:*I ’ve been a tremendous fan of Liz’s body of work, but also how she shows up in the world beyond being a filmmaker. The opportunity to work with someone who uses their voice for social justice in so many arenas, and to collaborate on a project of this scale, was a dream collaboration
POV: I wanted to ask about your voice for social justice, Liz, because you are such an active tweeter calling out Trump and following the news. What sparked that?
LG: I was something of a late adopter. Being at film festivals with What Happened, Miss Simone?, a filmmaker friend of mine, Brett Morgen, was all over Twitter. He had his Kurt Cobain film that year and he was like, “You gotta do this.” I started by promoting my film on Twitter. But with the Presidential race in 2016, I became addicted. I had this terrible excuse [laughs], which was that I started making The Fourth Estate and I decided it was part of my duty to read every tweet that the New York Times reporters composed and see what I could glean from them. I saw what [stories] they might have in the works and what they weren’t telling me at that moment. At that point, I was all in. Maybe after 2021, I can take a break.
POV: How do you navigate objectivity when your subject is also one of your producers?
LC: When we started the project, Stacey said, “This story is not about me.” As Liz and I were developing the narrative and the arc, and unpacking centuries of history, what was very apparent to us was how Stacey could provide an important starting point. She was the spine that helped us expand. Her personal story is a universal story. There wasn’t much trepidation when we presented the rough cuts to Stacey. Thankfully, she put her producer hat on and went along with the structure that we presented to her.
LG: I’ve had this experience on films where there was a stakeholder in the project who was also in it: Anderson Cooper [for Nothing Left Unsaid], Patton Oswald in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Even on the Nina Simone film, Nina’s daughter controlled a lot of the estate and was an executive producer. There are times when this relationship works and there are times when it doesn’t work. Having done this a few times, I have my “Spidey sense” of who is going to be a non-interfering but supportive partner in the creative process. Stacey certainly fell into that category. She was also too busy to be all up in our editing room. However, she had enough time to help us make the connections that we needed.
POV: How was the experience of going along for the ride with Stacey while there was speculation that she might be Biden’s running mate?
LC: Our interactions with her were always focused on the creation of this film and having it completed in a timely manner so that it could be out in this season. On a personal level, we wondered what was going to happen, but Stacey is not the coda to the story. The story’s focus is on the long arc of history, how things have ultimately stayed the same. Liz likens this film to a monster movie because once you cut off one head, several other heads appear. Our focus was to highlight the history of voter suppression and to point out the progress that’s been made, and what people can do moving forward as engaged citizens.
POV: Liz, you have looked at the flaws in America’s prison system since The Farm, up through The Innocence Files this year, and again with All In. How has the conversation around voting rights for inmates shifted during this period?
LG: Every state has its own laws about whether incarcerated folks or formerly incarcerated folks can cast a ballot. And I think Desmond Meade’s Amendment 4 in Florida was important in terms of casting a light on the issue. Many people are just not aware that you can serve your time, you can pay your debt, and yet the most fundamental right of citizenship in Florida was not afforded to you. His campaign and his work towards the passage of Amendment 4 in Florida has had a huge impact in the national conversation and helped people understand how unique the USA is in denying the right to vote to incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people.
There is also a greater argument about what has created these large incarcerated populations. In the film, we talk about the Black codes—after the slaves were freed, they had no participation in the wealth that they created. They became criminalized. Loitering, for instance, standing on the street without having a job, was something that you could go to jail for and lose your voting rights for. Even if you look at homelessness during the pandemic, people are four times more likely to get a citation for homelessness if they’re Black than if they’re white. You cannot separate the history of incarceration and citizenship from the larger history of racism in the United States.
POV: The film pulls off the tricky task connecting the greater history with the immediate events of this year—COVID, Black Lives Matter. Can you talk about shaping the narrative as events unfolded?
LC: We were in the middle of our rough cut and we had to pivot to incorporate the specter of the pandemic and how it was affecting voters. Luckily, we were able to do so. But this story is evergreen. Even with the specter of the pandemic and voting today, our history is based on limited access to the franchise so that a base of power can be maintained.
POV: At what point do you make the choice to stop tweaking and lock? Even this week, Trump encouraged his supporters to vote twice. How do you respond to that?
LG: The thing about voter suppression is the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anybody who was awake for the past few years knew that Trump would be using this spectre of voter fraud, which we know is not a real issue affecting our democracy, as an excuse to say that the election was rigged if he lost, or as an excuse for conservatives to pass restrictive ID laws, which have the tendency to disenfranchise Black, brown, poor, and young voters. He may say something today that he didn’t say three months ago when we were making the film, but it’s part of the same playbook.
POV: Can you tell me more about the impact campaign you’re running alongside the film?
LC: There was always a conversation about the creation of a robust impact campaign. Our website, Allinforvoting.com, has tools to help you figure out how to vote, how to take action, and other resources. There is a bus tour that is registering people to vote. We are giving ground grants to local artists and working with other organizations to get boots on the ground to help get people out to vote. The film ends with a great call to action and this is a way of staying in conversation with audiences.
POV: What does November 3rd mean to you?
LG: I would like to reframe the conversation from Election Day to Election Season. If we don’t have a result on the night of November 3rd, or in the early hours of November 4th, that means the system is working. That means ballots are being counted. We are going to have an unprecedented number of people voting by mail and many jurisdictions don’t let those votes be counted until Election Day. It means everything to me as a patriot, as someone who loves the promise of America, and as a parent. I’m bringing my children up in a world that is threatened with disease and climate change and the threat of violence from white supremacist groups. My kids participate in protests. There is a lot at stake and it is not just who’s the President of the United States. When you’re voting this season, you’re voting for the mayor who hires the police; you’re voting for the judge who is going to adjudicate in your family’s situation. So many things are on the ballot.
LC: November 3rd is an opportunity for us all to engage with this most sacred duty by registering, making certain that you are registered, and making a plan with your community. For example, can you give your aunt a ride? Ask what we can do to amplify the importance of early engagement with the process. November 3rd is potentially not going to change all of our ills, but with greater engagement, it can move us towards a corrective process to quell so much of what has been disturbing for the bulk of Americans.
All In: The Fight for Democracy opens in theatres Sept. 9 and on Amazon Prime Sept. 18.
Visit allinforvoting.com for more information on voter registration and resources.