The message of “All In: The Fight for Democracy” is simple, direct and stated in any number of ways: Vote. Vote because it’s your right. Vote because it has an impact. Vote because previous generations have fought to ensure that all Americans have access to the ballot — often in the face of enormous headwinds, and sometimes at the expense of their livelihoods and even their lives.
With Stacey Abrams, who was the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, as a producer, the movie interweaves a concise history of disenfranchisement in the United States with her own story, which throws the issues at hand into high relief. She has maintained that voter suppression in Georgia had a significant impact on the close vote that put her rival, Brian Kemp, a Republican, into the governor’s mansion in the 2018 election. (Kemp, in what critics charge was a conflict of interest, had power over the election as Georgia’s secretary of state.)
Abrams’s sections of the film are also a memoir: She remembers her grandmother telling her about casting her first vote, after the Voting Rights Act passed, and how she still felt terrified to exercise her franchise. At another point, Abrams notes that chronic voter suppression has had a “pernicious” effect: “It convinces you that maybe it’s not worth trying again,” she says.
The broad strokes of the history in the film are likely to be familiar to viewers, but some of the details may not be. Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory, and one of the most engaging interviewees, relates the story of Maceo Snipes, a World War II veteran in Georgia who was the only African-American to vote in his area in 1946. He was shot and his wounds proved fatal.
Anderson and the journalist Ari Berman, the author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” discuss how Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 decision that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, had been a foe of the act as a young lawyer.
The recurring theme is that every major advancement for voting rights in the United States has been met with a counterreaction that hollows out those rights. These fights continue: The movie proper explains how a Florida ballot measure in 2018 restored former felons’ right to vote and overturned a Jim Crow-era restriction. But Florida subsequently passed a law mandating that ex-felons pay any outstanding fines and fees before voting, a requirement that critics say is effectively a poll tax. The continuing legal wrangling over the requirement, which includes a Supreme Court order in July of this year that is likely to prevent ex-felons from voting this November, is the sort of current event it’s near-impossible to keep up with in a documentary, and it gets no more attention than a title card.
In its shifting of topics and breadth of material, “All In” gives the impression of being a movie that the directors, Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, rushed to complete to meet the moment. (There is footage of Wisconsinites voting during the pandemic in April.) In a sense, it’s less a documentary for posterity than an urgent broadcast. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing.
All In: The Fight for Democracy
PG-13. Violations of basic rights. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In drive-in theaters and on Amazon.