By Michael Sandlin.
A crucial step-by-step guide to how the 1965 Voting Act in the United States has been gradually disempowered over the years.”
Although All In at first appears to be just another by-the-numbers overly didactic documentary designed expressly for frustrated middle-class liberals, it would be grossly unfair not to give this film its fair due as a crucial step-by-step guide to how the 1965 Voting Act in the United States has been gradually disempowered over the years. As we learn from the film, the guts of the Voting Rights Act were ripped out in the partisan 2013 Supreme Court decision to overturn key states-rights stipulations in the 1965 Act that would ultimately clear a direct path to the Trump Presidency in 2016. Fun and friendly voter suppression tactics could now be carried out by Republican-governed states, newly freed from their obligations to make voting free and fair for all people – all brought to you by the racist rightwing elite’s post-2012 Obama backlash.
In a chin-scratching irony to end all ironies, after decades of right-wing state governors screaming for less regulation from the federal government on their states’ voting laws, the 2013 decision essentially relieved states of this federal pressure to conform to certain procedural guidelines. And with their newfound freedom, what did Texas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana do? They responded hypocritically with their own oppressive voting laws, requiring government ID to vote and falsely invoking the specter of voter fraud when their actions were questioned. These states did everything they could to purge as many low-income black and Hispanic voters off the rolls as possible, and it worked like a charm in 2016. As one of the film’s commentators notes, with the overturning of the 1965 Act, we are now seeing “Jim Crow 2.0” come to fruition in the US.
All In is co-produced by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams, who lost in a controversial election to slow-drawling, anti-immigrant gubernatorial white guy Brian Kemp (in the film he comes off as a fascist Forrest Gump) and her compelling story is threaded throughout the film. Although this could have easily been just an exercise in sour grapes, we learn through Abrams’s own experiences just how corrupt the system still is. As valedictorian of her high school class, she was invited to the governor’s mansion in Atlanta, where Abrams and her family were told to get off the premises because they “didn’t belong.” Her bid for the Georgia governorship in 2018 sadly met with much the same corruption in the person of her opponent Kemp, who “weaponized” voter suppression to his advantage, namely by disqualifying absentee voting if signatures didn’t match exactly (Democrats traditionally vote by absentee ballot in greater numbers than Republicans). Amazingly, we witness a scene in which Abrams goes to the polls to vote for herself in the election and is told mistakenly that she already voted as an absentee. In fact, the voting process had become such an administrative black hole under Kemp’s watch that even Kemp himself ran into temporary problems when his own vote for governor was initially declared invalid.
Although the handful of predictably left-leaning interviewees in the film get a bit stretched, we do get the occasional right winger who gets the chance to inevitably lie on camera.”
Although the handful of predictably left-leaning interviewees in the film get a bit stretched – award-winning nonfiction author Carol Anderson, Abrams, historian Eric Foner, Abrams’s campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo, and a few others – we do get the occasional right winger who gets the chance to inevitably lie on camera. In this case we have the privilege of listening to the rhetoric of Hans von Spakovsky, who is not a Saxon count nor a Panzer division commander but actually just one of those Heritage Foundation weirdos. He assures us that suppressing the votes of poor black and brown people is not Jim Crow redux at all, it’s just a way to, again, prevent voter fraud. But as the film is all too pleased to point out, evidence of widespread voter fraud in America has yet to be proven.
All In’s main theme of “past is prologue” is much more convincing, as the film delves into the entire sordid history of minority vote suppression in the US, whether we’re talking fear of the black vote, fear of women’s votes, fear of Chinese votes, or fear of college student votes. Grandfather clauses and poll taxes designed to keep former slaves from voting in the 19th century were just the most subtle ways bigots in power could keep a damper on the minority vote: of course, deployment of homicidal lynch mobs were a less subtle tactic to keep nonwhites from the ballot box. But even the Brian Kemps of the world are smart enough to know that in the social media age they can’t suppress the black vote by means of police dogs and club-wielding state trooper goon squads.
These days, voter suppression now has to take the form of more clandestine disenfranchisement: denying felons the vote, taking people off voter rolls if they don’t vote for six years (as in Ohio), closing down polling places in rural and poor areas of town, forcing people to have government-issued IDs to vote – not to mention Trump’s Dr. Evil-like plan to defund the US Post Office if they deliver Democrat mail-in ballots in November. Although the film’s finale leaves you with a sense of hope that voter suppression can be suppressed once again, the fact that the Supreme Court is now stacked heavily in favor of arch pro-vote-suppressors like John Roberts and Clarence Thomas doesn’t bode well for American “democracy” in the long run.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.