Three Powerful Films About America’s Long, Bitter Struggle for Voting Rights

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Three Powerful Films About America’s Long, Bitter Struggle for Voting Rights

On August 24, the House passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which seeks to bolster provisions of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill’s passage marks one more step in a long and bitter struggle to secure voting rights for every citizen that is interwoven with the story of America. Three Peabody-nominated documentaries from this past year shed light on different aspects of this struggle.

Whose Vote Counts

Peabody Winner

In collaboration with Columbia Journalism Investigations and USA Today Network, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb travels to Wisconsin to unravel the insidious ways that voter ID laws, the decisions made around in-person voting during the pandemic, and the weaponization of “voter fraud” conspiracies affected Black and Brown voters in the state during a presidential election. 

Given the monumental stakes in this bitterly divided battleground state, FRONTLINE’s investigation into the inequities that affect who is allowed to vote — and why — is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the current state of our democracy. Jelani Cobb provides nuanced and thoughtful perspectives on the topic, remaining impressively even-keeled during one particularly contentious interview.

Where to Watch: PBS

All In: The Fight for Democracy

With the help of Stacey Abrams’ unique perspective, All In: The Fight for Democracy draws a straight line from the poll taxes, literacy tests, and violent intimidation that were used to suppress the Black vote following the 15th Amendment to the voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and polling place closures that serve the same function now. An eye-opening look at the wide-reaching effects of Shelby County v. Holder (the 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965), this documentary nonetheless finds hope and inspiration in those who have never given up the fight to make voting easier for every citizen.

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime Video

Further Reading: Stacey Abrams, in Conversation With Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Stacey Abrams talks about her work to fight voter suppression, her presidential aspirations, the dangers of misinformation, and the struggle ahead in a wide-ranging conversation with journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

Where to Read: The Bitter Southerner

American Experience: The Vote

In two fascinating installments, PBS’s The Vote tells the story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in America. The long, arduous fight to secure the vote for women is inspiring, but this documentary doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of the movement, which often excluded women of color and turned its back on racial justice even as it sought to dramatically expand the franchise against an entrenched opposition.

Of particular interest in this piece is the story of Alice Paul—the indefatigable suffragist who endured multiple terms in prison, hunger strikes and force-feeding, and countless bitter defeats from her early days as a radical activist in 1907 to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Her heated battles with the more moderate forces within her movement (epitomized by the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Catt) make for a fascinating lesson about how different strategic choices can bring about sweeping social change. 

Where to Watch: PBS

Further Reading: Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

Ari Berman, who appears in the first two of these documentaries as an expert, has written the definitive history of the continuing American struggle for equal access to the ballot following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

With in-depth reporting on the concerted effort to suppress the vote following the bill’s passage that culminated in the 2013 Supreme Court decision to make key parts of it unenforceable, this essential read is a sobering view of the formidable forces that are arrayed against democracy in America today. 

Where to Buy: Amazon

June Cross and Jelani Cobb’s Peabody Acceptance for “Whose Vote Counts”

Following an introduction from Atlantic contributor Jemele Hill, director June Crossand Jelani Cobb talk about what motivated them to do this important investigation.

Where to Watch:

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