“All In: The Fight for Democracy,” a new documentary directed and produced by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes for Amazon Studios, highlights both the historical and contemporary struggles for voting rights throughout the United States. At the center of the documentary is Stacey Abrams, the founder of voting rights organization Fair Fight Action, who gained national attention during her widely covered bid in 2018 for the Georgia governorship.
For Abrams, voter suppression is personal. In the 2018 election, her opponent Brian Kemp used his power as the secretary of state to purge registered voters from the rolls and consolidate polling locations in what many labeled an effort to swing a close race in his favor. As the documentary argues, it’s the unique weaknesses of American democracy that make such an abuse of power possible, and without pressure from both elected officials and grassroots activists, this illiberal trend has the potential to unmake our democracy.
The ultimate point of “All In” is compelling, but it meanders through the first hour to get there. “All In” opens with a brief recap of Abrams’ loss to Kemp in 2018, complete with an excerpt of her famous nonconcession speech. Quickly, the film pivots to the history of suffrage writ large by connecting the Georgia race to the long tradition of voter suppression in the United States. From there, the film flips back and forth between historical details and anecdotes from Abrams’ own past as an organizer and activist.
Though Abrams’ story is engrossing and inspiring, the documentary’s attempt to use it as an access point through which viewers can understand voter suppression serves mostly to distract from the overall point and disorient the viewer rather than focus them.
To bring Abrams’ anecdotes to life, “All In” makes heavy use of illustrations and animations to mixed results. The graphic design employed by the film does a nice job of adorning and modernizing historical documents and quotations without being distracting, but the animated sequences that accompany Abrams’ stories clutter and lessen the intended impact. The animations are neatly designed and fascinating to watch, but as a storytelling tool, they miss the mark — one can’t help but wonder if simple photographs would have done more to tell the story by accenting, not overshadowing, the events themselves.
The documentary’s intended purpose is somewhat unclear for the first half, oscillating between Abrams’ life story and the history of voting rights struggles. These two narratives are inextricably linked, as Abrams points out in a speech referenced later in the documentary, but for much of the film, the effort to give both topics equal attention clouds its goals and leaves the audience wanting more.
The film finally hits its stride when it reaches 2013 — the year the Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder that key elements of the Voting Rights Act were no longer necessary, opening the floodgates for rampant disenfranchisement across the country. At this point, it becomes clear that “All In” is not just a history. It’s a warning. By comparing the historic fights for suffrage to the struggles that voting rights activists face today, “All In” shows just how much damage has been done in the few years since Shelby was decided. To undo this damage, the documentary argues, it’s incumbent on ordinary citizens to speak out and protect our democratic institutions.
Despite its shortcomings as a film, “All In” is a marvelous call to action. Though often unfocused, the documentary’s informative and inspiring elements render it greater than the sum of its parts. The viewer comes away with an effective understanding of how voting was suppressed in the past, how history is being echoed in the present and how urgent it is that everyone join the fight for democracy.
Contact Matthew DuMont at [email protected].