That story, as director Liz Garbus says, “was a fig leaf over something more, complicated and historical hundreds of years in the making.”
The Amazon Studios documentary, which hits theaters Wednesday before arriving on Sept. 18 on the streaming platform, follows a throughline of voting rights and voter suppression throughout history.
As voting history is traced in the doc, Garbus and co-director Lisa Cortés bring the story up to date with the Black Lives Matter movement and voting in a pandemic with Abrams being the powerful voice to drive voters to the polls by telling her personal history.
The narrative is a call to action not just from Abrams, but from the filmmakers to mobilize communities through a grassroots campaign to get voters out there early enough to vote and plan to vote. Cortés and Garbus talked about their own history with voting rights, Abrams and the new anthem from Janelle Monae, “Turntables.”
Last week, you had the world premiere of the documentary and were honored with the Mill Valley Film Fest Spotlight Award and now, there’s this great new anthem from Janelle Monae. How did she get involved?
Lisa Cortés: She sent us a demo on a Saturday, and the demo was perfect. There was nothing that needed to change. She and her team are from Georgia. They took to the film and they took to the message of Stacey’s work. She gave us this amazing demo on a Saturday and we were able to put it into our film immediately because it was so perfect.
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Usually, you’re listening and you got the notepad, and you’re thinking about things and taking notes that the bridge should be this, or the lyric should be that.
As an artist, she used her voice to speak to this moment and to speak to the energy that so many of us are feeling – looking for a change.
Liz Garbus: Being from Georgia, her whole team felt so connected. Her producer went to Morehouse and Stacey went to Spelman, there was already a shorthand, and when we talked, it was this amazing kismet.
What I’m so encouraged about is that there’s a lot of apathy, especially with young folks around voting. I just love that artists who have those kinds of followings are saying, ‘You know, one vote may not change all of America, it’s not going to change your life, but it’s cool. You’ve got to do it and you’ve got to participate.’
I love that artists like Janelle are putting their hearts and souls into this and helping to bring their audiences along with us.
One thing this has inspired me to do is to go out and sign up to be a poll worker. What did you know about voter rights and suppression before you started on the doc?
Cortés: It’s a personal history. It’s something I live with. It’s something I’ve lived with, in terms of stories from my family members on both sides.
I’m so glad to have in my DNA, their ability to call things out, to march, to fight and to love their community enough to at times, place their bodies in the direct place of harm.
It’s interesting when you work on a film that you have not only the vestigial memory, but you also have that personal one, you know, every day of what it means to step out the door as an African Latinx woman, and deal with a series of microaggressions and a world that at times is obligingly giving me my place at the table.
Garbus: Part of white privilege is not having problems voting. You show up at the polls and you don’t get a lot of pushback — at least in New York.
But for me, I can’t say it wasn’t something I was acutely aware of. Lisa and I both have histories of families who have been very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. And a story that I remember my father telling me at a very young age is when he was a lawyer at the ACLU.
One of the cases that he talked about was the case of a woman named Henrietta Wright, who registered to vote. She went to register to vote 20 days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. She showed up at the courthouse with her Black Power button and fill out the paperwork. She drove the 10-minute drive back home before she could make it inside, a sheriff pulls up and tells her she’s under arrest for blowing through a stop sign.
She’s brought into a cell in a Mississippi jail, where she’s kept and she’s beaten all night and the next day is sent to a mental institution.
These were stories I heard at an early age so voting was never something I took for granted. When my kids were in strollers, we would go to the nearest swing state to us, which was Pennsylvania and knock on doors to make sure people were registered.
When Stacey walked in the door to tell us about this project, it was a dream come true to be able to work on a project like this.
Where do you even begin since you’re not just telling her story, but the history of voting rights?
Cortés: We spoke with Stacey about the architecture of voter suppression a lot. We talked about history. She was an incredible collaborator, in terms of opening up her Rolodex to people that we wanted to have access to, and I think that’s why we have such credible authorities in our film. As I called her the other day, she’s a North Star for helping us to continuously find ways to contextualize the present in the context of “Why are we in this moment, and what are the seeds of our republic?” You cannot separate the two.
Garbus: Stacey was very insistent that it should not be a film about Stacey Abrams. It was a fig leaf over something more complicated and historical hundreds of years in the making. However, she also respected and listened to Lisa and I when we said, ‘We need to have the beating heart and that human story that people are going to connect to.’ She also listened to us in terms of the kind of story that we wanted to tell in this film.
How do we mobilize the communities and the people on Election day?
Cortés: With this film, we created a dynamic social impact campaign. allinforvoting.com has a variety of tools on how to check your registration and how to make a plan because making a plan is so important. There’s further information about how to participate, from being a poll worker to hosting a watch party. We have educational tools that have been created.
We’ve been working to make certain that this campaign and how we’re going to be taking it on the road is not just speaking to the folks who know about this but getting to the communities who might have felt left out of the process and not represented and to show them that there is a very important space for them to occupy and to have their voices heard.
Was there anything that you learned that gave you hope for democracy?
Garbus: I think we’ll be okay in November if people follow Lisa’s advice, which is, make a plan.
A plan is the best way to combat the stress and the chaos that we’re feeling, and you can do it. Vote early. If you’re voting by mail, get your ballot in early. If you’re stressed about the USPS, find a dropbox.
One of the things that we see, which is kind of the silver lining in all of Trump’s attacks on the electoral process and democracy is that people are learning about it. They’re learning about people being purged from the rolls. They’re learning what to do. They’re learning the phone numbers to call. One of the upsides of this crisis is that information is getting out there. There’s so much energy and that’s the silver lining here.
Cortés: We have a platform with this film to talk about real facts and the truth and hope that the truth will set us free.