Review: All In – The Fight for Democracy
For longer than I care to admit, before seeing All In: The Fight For Democracy, I referred to it in shorthand as “the Stacey Abrams documentary.” I meant no offense by this; rather, it was simply a quick way to reference a film about a rising political player who made a name for herself during her historic 2018 run for the office of Governor of Georgia. Reader, so that you don’t make the same mistake I do, please know that this important documentary about the history and value of voting rights in America is not so much “Stacey Abrams’s documentary” as it is an urgent call to action to every member of the electorate who’s ever entertained the misconception that “my vote doesn’t matter.”
The truth is, as Abrams’s razor-thin loss to Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp proves, those single votes add up and, taken together, they can be the difference between a government elected by and for all people or one in power to server their own. The activist and politician’s story is certainly central to All In, co-directed by Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, however at a hefty hour and forty-two minutes, the film goes far beyond a single governor’s race to recount in great detail the realities of voting rights throughout American history—who had them from the outset and who most certainly didn’t; how Reconstruction set about expanding them after the Civil War; the lasting damage Jim Crow laws had on equal access to the polls; and the reality that even today, the fight to restore and maintain voting rights for all those constitutionally eligible continues.
Before Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden named Senator Kamala Harris as his Vice Presidential running mate (but after he’d committed to naming a woman to the ticket), Stacey Abrams’s name was often floated as a potential pick for the spot. Her campaign to become the first female, Black governor in the country’s history (side note: HOW do we still have firsts like this happening?!) made national headlines, as she bravely and boldly stated her case for the position over the course of nearly a year. With endorsements from the likes of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and more, for a moment in the run-up to the November 2018 elections it seemed she might actually pull it off. When she didn’t, she famously held out on conceding the race, as votes continued to be counted days after the election and the margin between her and Kemp narrowed. Her speech to recognize Kemp had been designated the next governor was decidedly was not a concession; she was not admitting defeat, but would simply no longer stand in the way of the forward momentum of government.
With the clarity of hindsight, All In gives Abrams and those who both know her best and worked closest to her on the campaign (sometimes the same people) the chance to share in their own words how it all played out. More than the play-by-play of an election (though there is some of that), much of the film is devoted to the sort of introduction a candidate typically receives at the quadrennial party conventions. We meet Abrams’s parents and hear about her upbringing in a poor but civically minded family of six siblings, where they all went to the polling place every election to watch their parents exercise their constitutional right to vote. We learn that Abrams became an activist in college, even snagging an invitation to speak at the 30th anniversary of the famous March on Washington, addressing the crowd from the same podium in 1993 where Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken in 1963.
Though all of this is interesting—the country would be smart to elect Abrams to any elected office for which she next chooses to run—the film’s most compelling moments are actually the more academic ones, as it explores the ins and outs of a history of voting in America that is too often (like so much of our past) oversimplified. In fact, as the film illustrates with impressive archival images and historical anecdotes, the path to inclusive voting (one we’re still very much navigating even today) hasn’t always been smooth or straight. (As one subject says in the film, progress isn’t always forward.) From recounting the many Black men who served in state and federal office during Reconstruction until racism in the South reared its ugly head to knock them down again, to the story of Maceo Snipes, a World War II veteran and the only Black man to vote in his Georgia county who was killed for his actions, these stories are stark reminders of the many ways a constitutional right has not been applied to all equally since as far back as the nation’s founding.
Production-wise, the film is crisp and consistent, with each of its talking heads sitting at an unobtrusive table, different green-screen backgrounds breaking up what minimal monotony these commentaries might otherwise carry with them. While shifting its focus away from Abrams proves a solid choice (and, judging by Abrams’s humble nature and activist heart, one she might have insisted on), it also makes for a bulky film overall; instead of marrying the two threads—Abrams’s life and campaign with the history of voting in America—there could easily be two brief but impactful 90-minute films here, one about each worthy subject. In a year where voting matters more than ever (true, even if it is said every single election cycle), having All In to remind us of that importance at all is worth the extended run time.