The Battle for the Ballot: 'All In' Traces the History of Voter Suppression
“Honest question: Why do we keep hearing about this woman? What has she ever accomplished, other than refusing to accept that she lost an election?”:: This is a comment on an online publication’s announcement of the release of Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus’ new documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy. The film, about the long history of voter suppression in the USA, undertakes the herculean task of tracing a two-centuries-old history, with Georgia's 2018 governor race as a focal point. This is when Democrat Stacey Abrams (also one of the film’s producers) lost by a thin margin to Brian Kemp, the Republican Secretary of State whose efforts to suppress the voting rights of minorities resulted in the purging of 1.4 million people from Georgia’s voting rolls. Had she won, Abrams would’ve been the first African-American woman to be a governor of an American state. “To be clear, this is not a speech of concession,” she said on November 16, 2018, after it was clear that she didn’t have enough votes to win and she effectively ended her campaign. All In is a part of Abrams’ efforts to make people aware of the pernicious nature of voter suppression and the many ways in which it goes on in the country today. We keep hearing about her because she is trying to put an end to the practice.
All In, produced by Abrams, Cortés, Garbus and Dan Cogan, will be released in virtual theaters on September 9, followed by a digital release on Amazon Prime on September 18. In the months leading up to the elections in November, All In joins other documentaries like And She Could Be Next and Surge as they try to build a conversation around the primacy of voting. “We often think voter suppression is when we show up to vote and somebody says, ‘Sorry you’re not registered’ and we think it’s a mistake,” says Garbus. “In fact, it’s the system. It’s a feature, not a bug of the system. We made the film so people know that.” All In is mandatory viewing for this moment in America’s history, when even the most basic right to vote remains contested and, often, denied.
Documentary spoke to Cortés and Garbus about the documentary and its urgency. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: Who had the idea to make this film?
LIZ GARBUS: The whole film started with Stacey Abrams, who wanted to make a film about voting rights. I think a lot of people had approached her about making a film about her election and race for governor. It was important to her that the story not become the story of Stacey Abrams versus Brian Kemp in the Georgia governor race. She was more interested in telling the hundreds of years of history that produced this moment. That was the important story in her view; it was important to not see these things in a vacuum.
D: Then how did you two get together to make it?
LG: It started with Stacey. I then called Lisa Cortés, whose work I had admired and who I knew socially and liked a lot, but also knew her work from working on the Apollo documentary that my husband, Dan Cogan, was also a part of. We started talking last summer. We had a lot of work to do, and we hit the ground running together.
D: What was your style of collaboration?
LISA CORTÉS: We divided and conquered. We worked together on looking at the story, the characters and the architecture of the storytelling. We spent a lot of time on Stacey’s history and the associated archival research. Both of us thought those stories needed to be told.
D: What were some of the specific technical or formal decisions you made?
LC: There was so much in the history of things [like Stacey Abrams’ encounter with racism when she, as a valedictorian, was supposed to meet the governor of Georgia] where there was no vérité footage, no archival recording, but we thought that they were important events that we wanted to highlight in our storytelling. We decided to rely on animation as a technique and set off on an atypical path where we first landed on an illustrator, Diana Ejaita, who is based on Berlin, and then got in touch with her collaborator for the animation. There were the nuts and bolts of the storytelling, but I think we were always pushing ourselves to find inventive ways to bring these moments to life.
LG: We were dealing with a story that’s so big—hundreds of years and it affects hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. We had to constantly decide on what stories we’d tell and which ones we wouldn’t. Those were conversations Lisa and I had all the time. Voter suppression is often seen as a partisan issue, which it is today. But historically, it hasn’t been one. It was important for us to bring in those ideas, to talk about the youth vote. It was a constant decision-making process—whose stories do we elevate and whose do we leave aside? Those were key questions, not just in storytelling but also from the point of a social responsibility. Those conversations between the two of us were key in terms of figuring out the arc and architecture of this film.
We also had to make a decision over the use of profanity and racist language in historical material, and I wanted Lisa to take the call on that.
D: Can you tell me more?
LG: I thought that we should censor the “N” word; cover it up when it shows up on some historical documents. Lisa didn’t think we should.
LC: I think, ultimately, in this particular case, it’s the truth and that’s what we were always seeking to tell in our film and to not negate the pain to make somebody else feel comfortable.
LG: Those kinds of debates are really important in putting a film out there. Being able to have them and confront these questions together was really important.
D: Stacey Abrams is one of the producers of the film, and an important authorial voice. How did she juggle her roles and how was it working with her?
LG: In the beginning, Stacey really wanted her role in the content of the film to be small. Lisa and I both felt strongly that it was important for the story to have her as a kind of a beating heart, a personal story that has a beginning, middle and an end that you hang on to as a viewer. It’s the spine of the story and once that was strong, we could hang all the muscles and the flesh of the history around it. Part of our job was having her take off her personal hat and put on her producer hat and understand why, from a filmmaking perspective, we needed her story in the film. It took a lot of cajoling from me and Lisa! In the end, she was able to toggle between those roles very well. She respected our advice about what would be important to making the narrative of this film feel cohesive.
D: As creators, was it important for you to have the other side of the story represented in the film?
LC: We do have some conservative voices in the film. We have Hans von Spakovsky from the Heritage Foundation. We have Bert Rein, who was the counsel in Shelby County v Holder. We sought out Brian Kemp but were turned down. That was an interesting part of this process; we sought to not only give historical context but also examine, in this current moment, who were the people who were actively involved in putting an end to voter suppression in the country.
D: There seems to be a palpable sense of urgency in making this film...
LC: It seems that we are all trying to figure out how we got to this place. How did we get to a place where we have a president talking about ensuring the presence of law enforcement at polling locations? How did we get to a place where polling locations are being closed? Purges, strict voter ID laws. How are we still talking about this? As filmmakers, it is incredible that we can engage with these questions not only from the standpoint of history but also study its contemporary manifestations. It is a very long tale that we are looking at. Liz says this is her first “monster movie.” It’s a monster movie, it’s a nightmare, it is a story that does not change that much through time. I think it is urgent that we help provide truth and facts at such a time so that people can make the right decisions. Yes, it was urgent to put fuel in our tank, so that we can show up and vote. And make certain that our ballots are cast at this most critical time in our history.
D: Impact campaigns and community screenings are so important for a film like this. Has the pandemic affected any of those plans for you?
LC: From the beginning of this project, we knew we had to have a robust social impact campaign. If you go to the website, AllinForVoting.com, we have a variety of tools that are useful: you can find out if you’re registered, what the specific laws around voting in your state are, and other information like that. We have links that will guide you if you want to host viewing parties, if you’re looking to become a poll worker, how you can help out in the process.
We have an educational module that has been created along with the film. We have an incredible group of anchor partners: Southern Poverty Law Center, Vota Latino, Rock the Vote, Black Voters Matter. They’re all using the film as a mobilizing tool.
There are some activations coming up that are aimed directly at communities and these will provide resources to folks who have their boots on the ground. The use of this film was always envisioned in a 360 way because we want to meet people where they are at. So whether it’s a pop-up that will happen in Harlem in a few weeks, or whether it is used as a tool by community groups, both here and abroad because there’s a large number of Americans outside the country who can vote, we want to meet everybody where they are.
D: This is a polarizing subject and just going by the reception on Twitter so far, you know this will be a very polarizing film. As filmmakers, how are you gearing up for that?
LG: Stacey is a real lightning rod for a lot of extreme voices. It’s been interesting because as a low-profile citizen, who is now often included in tweet chains with her, I can see the kind of negativity that can overwhelm social media. It really has heightened our partisanship. But I think at the end of the day, most Americans are fairly sensible. These corners of the internet will always nip at us and they’re going to try bringing us and the film down. But hopefully the people that we will reach through our impact campaign: lower information or lower propensity voters, people in mosques, churches and synagogues, people who will watch the film in a community screening. I hope they will welcome good information when it’s given to them. We just have to focus on that and not let the trolls get us down.
D: Does a community-driven film like this demand a filmmaking partnership?
LC: I think Liz and I bring our interrogating from the same place, and as a Black woman working with a white woman, there is a healthy exchange of ideas and experience that I think made for the richer telling of our story. Because it ultimately is our story.
LG: I think, from my point of view as a white filmmaker, Lisa’s point of view in some things was obviously going to trump mine. I had to respect that she has a world experience that I don’t have and I think that’s what made this such an effective partnership—listening to each other and both of us pulling on our experiences and coming at it together.
Bedatri D. Choudhury works with documentary films and is a culture journalist. Born and raised in India, she lives in New York City.