Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2020. Story Syndicate. Screenplay by Jack Youngelson. Cinematography by Wolfgang Held. Produced by Stacey Abrams, Dan Cogan, Lisa Cortes, Liz Garbus. Music by Gil Talmi. Film Editing by Nancy Novack. American Cinema Editors Award 2020. National Board of Review Awards 2020.
The 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia between Brian Kamp and Stacey Abrams sets off the action in this fascinating documentary that examines America’s faulty history with voting rights. Kemp wins by a small margin and Abrams feels compelled to point out that his victory was accomplished under severely compromised circumstances; Kemp appears to have laid the groundwork for his success in his previous position as Georgia’s Secretary of State and was responsible for disqualifying more than a million people from voter eligibility, something that Abrams was no longer going to let stand. This then plunges us into a history lesson whose many details are laid out smoothly by directors Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus and writer Jack Youngelson: the back and forth progress of freedom in America begins with Reconstruction and the success of many African-Americans to prominent positions in government before the introduction in many states of poll taxes, later literacy tests and felony disenfranchisement laws that see tensions rise and lead to the civil rights movements of the sixties. The images of Americans being shot at and killed by their own government on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama speeds up the passing of the Voting Rights Act, but decades later the ascension to the presidency of Barack Obama is used as an excuse to drop it, since after all, if a black man can become president there must not be any more issues with discrimination in America. The resumption of hurdles built to keep people out of voting booths and the sinister jerrymandering of districts mean that voting participation among non-white American citizens are pitifully low. An investigation into claims of voter fraud popularized during Trump’s administration, which finds no evidence of it occurring in any significant volume, means that keeping such people from participating in the fundamental right upon which democracy defines itself is the reason why all these obstacles exist. Expert testimony is richly delivered by a host of knowledgeable talking heads, including professor and One Person, No Vote author Carol Anderson, The Nation journalist Ari Berman, Abrams’ campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo and, of course, Abrams herself. Her personal tales about her own journey to politics provide the emotional centre to this thought-provoking summation of historical bullet points, from her experience almost being denied entrance to a celebration for the state’s high school valedictorians (of which she was one) to her present-day fight against voter suppression. Her success is the high point, but the film’s context is a tragic one, the low-scoring report card for a country that has proudly proclaimed its democracy in many international conflicts but which appears to be irregular at putting the concept into practice at home.