A version of this story about “All In: The Fight for Democracy” first appeared in the Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
“All In: The Fight for Democracy” is a wide-ranging documentary that tracks the history of voter suppression in the United States — but the presidential election made the film by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes seem both timely and prescient. “All In” may span more than a century of efforts to disenfranchise Black voters, but it focuses on Stacey Abrams’ unsuccessful 2018 campaign for governor of Georgia and her subsequent efforts to reform voting inequities, which may have played a role in the state flipping blue and voting for Joe Biden in November.
You knew that Stacey Abrams was a force of nature and that the issue of voter suppression is crucially important. But could you have imagined that she would turn out to be such a rock star in the election, and that Georgia would be such a pivotal race?
LIZ GARBUS I think that because Stacey could imagine it, we could imagine it as well. Stacey is, as you said, a force of nature. Between her belief and conviction and focus, and also her intel on the ground, I’ll take betting odds in whatever Stacey Abrams puts her stock in.
And I think for a lot of white folks who haven’t experienced obstacles in voting, the concept of voter suppression feels very abstract. And even for people of color who maybe have experienced it, there is a sense that maybe they’ve done something wrong: “I didn’t fill out some postcard, there must’ve been some bureaucratic mistakes.” And what is clear from all the research we’ve done and was very clear to Stacy when she walked in the door, was that no, it’s a feature, not a bug of the system. It’s been designed to work this way in order to have a smaller electorate and make it easier for there eventually to be minority rule in this country.
It’s a film that focuses on Stacey but also expands to deal with the history of voter suppression. Was it a challenge to include everything you wanted to cover?
GARBUS It was the challenge of the film, but it was also the opportunity of the film. Early on in our research process, (historian and professor) Carol Anderson said you can’t understand Georgia 2018 without understanding the Mississippi plan of 1890, which was essentially the retrenchment from Reconstruction. And that was a light bulb for me and Lisa — it became clear that this was almost like a monster movie where you cut off the monster’s head, but it rears up again with another head: the Black codes or the Mississippi plan or literacy tests and all these other things which disenfranchise Black Americans.
LISA CORTÉS The timelines we created through our research made it so apparent that these seismic shifts occur with either progress or regression. There’s a connection between what happened with the Florida vagrancy laws in the 1800s and what happened with Amendment 4 allowing formerly incarcerated persons to vote today.
Were you always determined to finish the film in time for the election?
CORTÉS Yes. It was very important not only for the film, but the social impact campaign, so this could be part of the conversation.
I imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the process of finishing the movie — and at the same time, things kept happening that could have been incorporated into the movie.
CORTÉS I think that’s true, but we delivered the film in August. So, you know, the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the issues around COVID voting in the primary this spring, we were able to include those.
GARBUS And one of the things that’s important to remember is that history leads to the present moment. Maybe we don’t have it up-to-date in terms of what happened with the postal service, because that happened after we delivered the film, but it was part and parcel of the story we told. Trump’s claims about voter fraud weren’t new and different, they were part of the playbook we’d already explored in the film.
People say, “Did you have a hard time stopping and finishing?” And sure, we could keep going, but the seeds were there. We can still give our audience the understanding of the framework in which current events are unfolding.
CORTÉS Yeah. I think even the violence and intimidation that is happening now in Georgia for the officials who were involved in the recount and even folks who were doing their job is a part of the same continuum.