All In: The Fight for Democracy is part propaganda and part history lesson. It is meant more as an educational tool for the politically incoherent. People who are angry at what they see but do not know who is responsible.
Keep in mind when I say propaganda, I’m not meaning it in a bad way. All In isn’t shy about its Progressive bias. It is after all focused in large part on Stacey Abrams, her early life, and eventual career in politics, and eventually culminating in her gubernatorial campaign against Republican Brian Kemp. It’s meant to be a propaganda tool, to motivate and to excite people into action.
The directors Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes try to weave in the history of voting rights into the narrative to varying degrees of success. Abrams, had she won, would have been the first Black woman to become a State Governor as well as the first Black Governor of Georgia.
Garbus and Cortes are nothing if not incredibly earnest. The earnestness works. It has a way of acting as a balm in a way that it’s nice to be reminded that somebody cares.
But All In is far too rote and matter of fact in the way that it presents itself. The pared-down minimalism aesthetic mutes much of what could have made All In a rallying cry. It is the definition of the term “talking heads”.
The guests sit and talk to the camera. Who they are, and what they do appearing at the bottom of the screen. After they speak we either get a history lesson with some drawings, pictures, or newsreel footage. Afterward, it’s off to the next person and the pattern repeats itself. Repetition is not inherently a bad thing but in this instance, it dilutes much of the emotion it’s trying to evoke. I mention presentation simply because if you’re trying to get people excited about something, as All In is clearly trying to do, it helps to be kind of exciting.
Garbus and Cortes do try and give a complete picture. But they go about it in that irritating way of letting the other side speak for three minutes and then move on back to the discussion. If you’re going to do a “both sides” argument then have both sides be present. Otherwise, quote them, show footage of them, and move on. Don’t waste time giving these people the pleasantry of lip service. Why talk to Hans Von Spakovsky of The Heritage foundation at all if he’s just going to regurgitate his talking point without any pushback or interrogation?
All In is at it’s best when it subtly ties things together, letting you see the pattern, as the history of voting rights unfolds. For example, part of the film talks about the history of Maricopa County, that tiny piece of land which seems such a magnet for human misery and bigoted tyranny. These moments in the documentary become educational and most importantly engaging.
It’s impossible to watch All In and not get a little riled up. It looks at everything from the failure of Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of President Barack Obama. All In does a remarkable job of looking at how America’s own failure to truly address racism allowed us a country to tell ourselves that by electing President Obama we had in effect defeated racism.
Eric Holder is even interviewed about Shelby V. Holder, the case that effectively struck down parts of the Voting Rights law. It is easily one of the most fascinating aspects of All In and it is agonizingly short. Holder is restrained but blunt in a fashion that a longer interview would have been truly enlightening.
Then there’s Abrams herself. A Progressive Democrat endorsed by Bernie Sanders, she is smart, articulate, and a moving speaker. Early on she tells a story about how as a high school student invited to the Governor’s Mansion she and her parents were denied entrance by a white guard. She tells this story to help us visualize that the Jim Crow era racism most believed to be of a bygone time wasn’t that long ago.
Garbus and Cortes intertwine Abrams’s 2018 campaign against Brian Kemp as an illustration of why this matters. To highlight their point, All In cleverly includes news footage of Kemp attempting to vote and running into difficulties. Contrasted with Abram’s issues as she attempts to vote. All In cleverly demonstrates how voting rights is an across the board non-partisan issue.
But Abram’s charismatic presence inadvertently highlights another problem with All In. It’s too short for what it wants to do. The history of voting in America isn’t a documentary that runs a little over an hour and a half.
All In feels as if it should be a mini-series. Or at the very least two separate documentaries. It’s a Homeric epic filled with great advancements and cruel regressions, of towering heroes and lowly villains, all locked in a struggle to enact the great tragedy known as American democracy. All In truncates itself and in so doing shortchanges the overall impact.
Segments such as the ones about Desmond Meade and his fight to restore voting rights to Floridians with previous felony convictions are rousing and informative. But they barely scratch the surface of the story. Listening to Native activists talk about how states will cleverly create loopholes impossible for Native voters to navigate sparks a fire in the viewer’s belly but doesn’t bother to fan the flames (though to be fair, this subject deserves an entire documentary of its own).
All In wants to recruit and educate voters on their rights and history. It is a noble effort in that it wants to galvanize and wake people up to the power they possess in themselves. The documentary forsakes pageantry in favor of simple human connection. It uses testimonials, and news reports, to try and drive home the importance and power of your vote.
It is one of the great ironies of America that as a country we uphold and worship the idea of the democratic vote; while in almost every aspect of our day to day lives we go above and beyond the call of duty to create such a Gordian knot of rules and regulations that the idea of voting doesn’t excite so much as to exhaust. Getting your vote to count has become an almost Sisyphean task. The great American experiment in democracy has revealed itself to be a tragi-comedy with all the jokes falling flat.
Some believe that voting is a conspiracy by the government to keep us mollified. If so then I have no idea why the government would spend so much time, money, and man-power to keep us from casting our ballot. To say nothing of the difficulties of voting if you happen to be anything other than white. History is a lens whereby we can see the many tricks and clever sleights of the legislative hand otherwise known as-racism by countless other names.
All In does not shy away from the fact that the “Great” American Experiment has rarely been so for anyone other than white male landowners. It does not shy away from exposing the violence visited upon Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and others who dared speak out and demand the vote. Garbus and Cortes deliver a history lesson dripped in the blood and agony of the oppressed who fought for the right to vote even at the threat to their own life. It is a history that bears repeating over and over until the nation takes its lessons to heart.
*The Fandomentals encourages our readers to go and vote in their upcoming elections. If you live in the United States and want to learn more information on how to register, or deadlines for each state’s registration, please click here.