Review: “All In: The Fight for Democracy” is a necessary, but dated, PSA

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“All In: The Fight for Democracy” is available on Amazon Prime Video.

By Nadiya Greaser, Staff Writer

If it were released any other year, Amazon Prime’s new documentary, “All In: The Fight for Democracy” would probably feel more insightful, or more like a call to action.

But the distinct and unusual circumstances of the 2020 presidential election make this documentary feel dated, even though it was only released Friday.

The documentary uses the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election as a case study for the systemic discrimination and voter suppression that it claims is happening in every state across the country. It discusses the race as the most recent offense in the American legacy of racism and voter suppression. The directors, Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, frame Georgia within this larger American legacy, and tell a story that is part history lesson, part public service announcement.

The Georgia election was highly contested, and became the source of several lawsuits. Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate, was the Georgia Secretary of State at the time, and was responsible for both overseeing election processes and enforcing rules. When he purged voter rolls and removed polling stations, many people, including Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate, felt that he had blatantly abused his power.

When I saw Stacey Abrams, I realized that it felt like this election had been much longer ago than it actually was. The past four years have been so long, and the 24-hour coverage of unethical and illegal government behavior has desensitized me to the measured, reasonable, slow-building intentionality of a political documentary.

We have a sitting president who has threatened the peaceful transition of power, while the Democratic nominee has struggled to gain traction among key demographics during his campaign, with not many voters considering him their first choice for the primary. There is a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted low-income Americans, disabled citizens and communities of color.

People are exhausted by 2020, but they are more aware than ever. A documentary that is sometimes a Civics 101 video and sometimes a voting PSA doesn’t feel as groundbreaking, or informative, as it would have felt six years ago.

The documentary opens on news coverage of the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, and then shows Abrams’ acknowledgement — not concession — speech. The speech highlights Abrams’ skill as an orator and her resounding condemnation of an election process constantly impeded by voter suppression, and makes her look like more than a governor.

This speech, among others, was a reason that people felt she was the best choice for Democratic vice presidential nominee. I am one of those people, and Abrams’ strong, charismatic and authoritative presence in the doc is a reminder that she would have been a bolder choice for vice president than Kamala Harris, whose moderate policies and harsh history as a prosecutor make many progressives wary.

Abrams’ presence is consistently the best part of the documentary. She is one of those people who makes it very hard to break eye contact when she speaks. She engages the viewer, at times funny and sincere, and other times sure and rebuking.

Abrams explains the stakes of voter suppression early, saying, “When elected officials feel they might not have power anymore, they have two choices — they can either be more responsive to the people they lead, or they can eliminate the people they have to answer to.”

Although Abrams has every reason to be angry about the election, she isn’t. She is determined, and her determination and moral certitude is a searing indictment of Kemp and the political system that allowed him to claim victory in the election.

President Barack Obama also makes an appearance in several clips, in something that feels like nostalgic presidency porn. Do you remember when the president was a president? Me neither. But he doesn’t give any direct insight to the documentary, and the directors instead chose to feature scholars, lawyers, civil rights leaders and other experts.

While all of the experts are clear and engaging, Carol Anderson, a public policy professor at Emory University, is particularly funny and sharp-witted, with a political awareness that feels prescient, although the rest of the documentary feels out of step.

The director’s choice of primarily nonpartisan experts is appreciated, but feels unnecessary. “All In” is made for a specific audience — white moderate Democrats, aged 32-55 — and I have a hard time imagining a conservative watching it. I also have a hard time imagining young progressives watching it. There’s no new information, or new solutions, and it stops short of blaming the entire government or calling for revolutionary changes to voting processes. 

The film almost gets there when sharing footage of Rep. John Lewis leading protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The directors share footage of police violence, voter intimidation and even incredibly violent footage of crossburnings and a lynching. But the directors stop short of connecting this historic police violence, and the historic murder of Black Americans, to the ongoing protests against the same violence against Black people. 

Anderson talks about the historic tactics of violence and intimidation alongside news footage of police attacking Black voters, but that’s where any comparison stops. The footage and argument are there, but for some reason they don’t bring the point home.

If “All In” were released in 2012, or 2015, when Barack Obama was president, and liberals felt good government was a matter of voting out a few bad apples, it would have been more effective. But it can’t escape the context it was created in, and it feels too moderate, too simplistic and too dated for the current moment. Despite talking about gerrymandering and the legislative discrimination facing voters, the call to action is ultimately “make sure you’re registered to vote.”

Voters feel differently now than they did five years ago. On one side there has been retrenchment and aggression, and an outright refusal to play by the rules. On the other is a political tent so big you could fit Canada under it. Moderate Democrats like Biden are willing to call out gerrymandering and voter suppression to an extent, but stop short of the demands made by younger progressives and will not meaningfully engage with revolutionary politics or adequately advance racial justice.

The parties in “All In” are recognizable, but oversimplified. There are big bad Southern Republicans — played by Kemp and his irritating accent — and moderate, Obama-era Democrats. The result is a documentary that doesn’t capture the moment we’re living in, and that it stops short of making predictions for 2020.

Anderson, the public policy professor, paraphrases Shakespeare and says of voter suppression, “What’s past is prologue. What does this say about the next political act, and how do we need to be prepared?” “All In” doesn’t answer that question.

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