Offerings this week include a timely documentary and a star-packed tearjerker.
Voting matters, big-time. If that weren’t true, elected officials wouldn’t keep trying to prevent certain people — those they deem unlikely to vote for them — from voting. That’s the sentiment compellingly put forth in “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” a documentary about voting rights and politicians’ continued efforts to suppress them streaming on Amazon Prime starting Friday.
This isn’t the first documentary to address voting-rights suppression. “Slay the Dragon” and “John Lewis: Good Trouble” recently covered aspects of this subject. But directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus provide an unusually wide-ranging picture of it in this conventionally structured but important film, and it’s no dull history lesson.
Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic Georgia state legislator who, in 2018, became the nation’s first black female major-party nominee for governor, is the doc’s central figure. Abrams narrowly lost the election to Republican Brian Kemp, and she believes that voting-rights suppression likely caused her defeat.
The film profiles Abrams as both political candidate and voting-rights advocate. It also traces the history of voting rights in this country.
The latter is a seesaw scenario: When it comes to granting voting rights to nonwhite, poor and young people, politicians giveth and taketh away, repeatedly. Echoing Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” the film shows how the racism we think we’ve crushed can, in a new guise, reappear.
In the nation’s earliest years, only 6 percent of Americans — white male landowners — could vote. After the Civil War, the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the latter of which granted African-American men the right to vote, changed the picture.
Then came the Jim Crow era, when methods such as poll taxes and “literacy tests,” along with KKK terror, kept disenfranchised communities away from the polls.
The civil-rights period saw immense progress and milestones like the Selma to Montgomery March and the Voting Rights Act.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. A resurgence of voting-rights suppression — poll closures, voter-ID requirements, voter-roll purging — followed.
The 2018 Georgia election, a focus of the doc, was so snafu-riddled that both Abrams and opponent Kemp were incorrectly told they were ineligible to vote. Kemp, incidentally, was Georgia’s secretary of state at the time; he was overseeing the election in which he was vying.
Initially, the film appears as if it might become foremost a celebrity profile of Abrams (who is one of its producers). Not to worry.
The Abrams portrait and the historical material work together effectively. Abrams anchors the film as an earnest, articulate voice for the right to vote, which she correctly describes as essential to democracy. Her personal stories and those of her family — including her grandmother’s recollection of the first time she voted — are pertinent and affecting. The other interviewees, too, supply stellar material.
Historian Carol Anderson talks about African-American World War II veteran Maceo Snipes, the only black resident of Taylor County, Georgia, to defy death warnings and vote there in a 1946 election. Three days later, gunmen killed him.
Andrew Young, the former congressman and ambassador, recalls the pro-Voting Rights Act speech President Lyndon Johnson delivered to Congress. “And we shall overcome” were LBJ’s closing words. “That’s the only time I saw Martin Luther King shed a tear,” Young says.
Additional subjects include women’s suffrage, voter IDs, Texas style, and Donald Trump’s attack on mail-in voting.
The archival footage accompanying the verbal accounts, some of which horrifically captures anti-voting-rights violence, also merits mention.
It all adds up to an edifying and timely picture of a crucial issue about which most of us are only superficially knowledgeable.
Channeling Abrams, the film also serves as a call to action: Demand the right to vote and exercise it.
All In: The Fight for Democracy
With: Stacey Abrams, Carol Anderson, Andrew Young, Ari Berman
Directed by: Lisa Cortes, Liz Garbus
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
A dying matriarch hosts a family gathering that will celebrate her life and culminate in her death in “Blackbird,” a starry drama elevated by an effective cast but compromised by a lackluster story.
Streaming Friday on Video on Demand, the movie is directed by Roger Michell (“The Mother,” “Le Week-End”), who has made several worthy films in which seemingly conventional people act in ways that buck norms. The screenplay is by Christian Torpe, who has reworked the script he wrote for the Danish film “Silent Heart.”
The story transpires at and around a Connecticut seaside home where the natural lighting and serene local scenery belie the unease that pervades the interior air. The occasion: Lily (Susan Sarandon), who has the neurodegenerative disease ALS, has decided to end her life, assisted by her physician husband, Paul (Sam Neill), and has
assembled her loved ones for a final get-together.
We meet Lily and Paul’s two daughters — straight-laced Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and restless Anna (Mia Wasikowska) — along with Jennifer’s husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson), whom the others view as monotony personified, and the couple’s teenage son, Jonathan (Anson Boon).
Anna’s partner, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), is also present, as is Lily’s longtime best friend, Liz (Lindsay Duncan).
It’s Lily’s show, and a Christmas-in-November dinner is on the bill.
Characters also enjoy an outdoor stroll and a game of charades.
Naturally, secrets and pent-up frustrations surface. Friction that exists between Jennifer and Anna disrupts the shaky peace Lily hopes to maintain. Distressed by her mother’s impending death, Anna threatens to sabotage the suicide plan as the clock ticks toward the moment when Lily says, “I’m ready” and Paul hands her the lethal potion.
As domestic tearjerkers go, this one fares slightly above so-so, boosted by Michell’s near-avoidance of sentimentality and first-rate ensemble cast.
Michell excels when the humanity flows. That’s the case with a dinner-table passage in which Lily hands out parting gifts that range from fine jewelry to a sex aid. Humor, sadness, and a spontaneous feel mix affectingly.
But unfortunately, the overall drama lacks the emotional depth and resonance that a story of this sort requires. Interactions feel screenwriterly rather than organic, and overly familiar or flat.
The secrets that come forth are unsurprising and, in one case, almost laughable.
The most interesting characters and relationships, such as the friendship of Lily and Liz, which dates back to the women’s Woodstock days, are shortchanged in favor of soapy melodrama.
As for the cast, Michell gives everyone an opportunity to shine, and all indeed do. The actors keep viewers involved when the screenplay falters.
Sarandon makes the cliched role of the acerbically quipping but warmhearted dying mother funny and moving. Winslet and Wasikowska, who supplies the heaviest heaps of emotion, give their oppositely tempered but similarly potentially annoying characters a welcome sympathetic quality. Duncan, wonderful in Michell’s “Le Week-End,” which benefited from a screenplay by frequent Michell collaborator Hanif Kureishi, has too little to do.
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill
Written by: Christian Torpe
Directed by: Roger Michell
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes