The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of All In: The Fight for Democracy
Did you set out to make a film about Stacey Abrams? How did this story come together for you?
Liz Garbus: For us it started when Stacey reached out to us, to our company Story Syndicate (the company I run with Dan Cogan), about doing a story focused on voter suppression. She definitely did not want to do “the Stacey Abrams movie.” She thought strategically — I think rightly — that if you tell that story, it could be viewed as “just” a movie about Georgia, or about her. It’s an amazing story, but you risk making it look like it’s one unusual bug, instead of an intrinsic part of the system across the country. So what was really important for us was to figure out the balance. So it started with that call from Stacey, then I called Lisa, and we formed a team to work with Stacey on this project. And then the challenge was, what is the balance we need to find between having that central character that you feel you can relate to as an audience member — so it doesn’t feel like you’re watching some history lesson — and telling a more far national story? We thought it was important to have this really dynamic central character whose life story is emblematic of our nation’s struggle. And using her story as the spine was just such a helpful way for us to structure the film in terms of being able to circle back to that national history. Because of course past is prologue, and the intersections are constant.
civics is sexy, because it leads to engagement
What was your personal connection to the issue of voting rights before you started making this film?
LG: I think the 2016 election was really a wakeup call, not just about the electoral college for those who didn’t comprehend how it works, but beyond that the legacy of laws that have kept people from participating in our democracy. And I think certainly for a lot of white people, it’s not something that’s endemic in their lived experience. So, one of the things that made me very predisposed to to want to explore this topic was a case that I heard about when I was growing up, a case that my father tried prior to when I was born, when he was a lawyer at the ACLU. He represented a woman named Henrietta Wright in Mississippi. Henrietta Wright was a black woman who, twenty days after the Voting Rights Act was passed, went to the courthouse to register to vote. She was wearing a “Black Power” button, and as she drove home from the courthouse back to the diner where she and her husband lived and worked, she couldn’t even get out of the car and make it into the diner before a sheriff car pulled up— the sheriff tells her she’s under arrest. Why? He tells her she blew through a stop sign. She resists— she says she’s driven that way every day for years; there’s no stop sign on this route. And then they charge her additionally for resisting arrest, throw her into the police car, and proceed to jail her and beat her up all night. The next morning, they send her to a mental institution. This was clearly meant to send a message that in Mississippi, they were not going along with the Voting Rights Act ruling. It took a lot of federal enforcement to protect people at the polls, something we’re looking at again today. We have, obviously, a mass effort to recruit lawyers and other poll-watchers. So that was a case that certainly stuck with me. And is unfortunately still resonant today.
Lisa Cortes: It’s interesting because, as Liz mentioned, my personal history is similar in that both my parents and grandparents, in this country and in Latin America, have been involved in liberation movements. And so to have that inform me as a very young person, and to contribute to my sense of what the real issues are, marrying that with Liz I think was something really complimentary in terms of what we brought to the table via our lived experiences and our story-telling experiences. We were able to bring these things together to help us excavate this incredibly complex history.
What did you learn while making this film?
LG: The story of voter suppression is disappointingly unsurprising. There is a pattern that has been repeated over and over through our history. Whenever there are these expansions — we talk about reconstruction in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments — there is then this clamp-down with the black codes, the Mississippi Plan, the emergence of Jim Crow, violence… you know we saw this again after the Voting Rights Act was passed and the increase of the franchise it brought. And then in the 2000’s, chipping away, chipping away, chipping away until you get to Shelby v. Holder, in which, you know, those rights are once again impeded. What was extraordinary, I will say, was in seeing the Shelby v. Holder decision and then seeing how prepared those states — who had been under the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act — how they were just ready to go, within twenty four hours of the decision, to put new restrictive laws around voting on the books. It was like this power that was just hungry to exert itself against a changing nation. Against a nation which could well be very soon a majority-minority country. And I think it’s Stacey who says it in the film: Rather than adapt to the changing needs of your constituents, your strategy is just to eliminate them from your constituency. And that is what we’re facing, and that is why another movement — like the Civil Rights Movement — once we get on the other end of this current election, is really called for. And getting that voting rights act, which has been sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk for 300 days, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, back out there on the floor is absolutely necessary.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this film?
LC: I think that civics is sexy, because it leads to engagement! It leads to helping us to make certain we have representation that is going to reflect the needs of our community. Whether it is the access to better education and clean water, or other very simple things that our communities are consistently hankering for, and to be able to feel like there is a voice out in the wilderness representing us. And so we would hope that there is an interest in the present history and the role that each of us can have as architects in the unfolding of our engagement… and that people can find a layer of involvement that works for them.