"American Blackout" takes a hard look at anti-Black voting practices in the 2000 and 2004 elections and doesn't like what it finds. The Martha's Vineyard Film Society will screen the documentary at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven on Saturday, Feb. 16. The film is co-sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard NAACP in honor of Black History Month.
Interviewing politicians like John Lewis, Bernie Sanders, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, and Cynthia McKinney, director Ian Inaba, who also filmed singer Eminem's 2004 get-out-the-vote video "Mash," documents disturbing patterns of voter disenfranchisement. African-Americans are targeted not purely out of racism, but because they are traditionally Democratic, according to the film.
The director makes no bones about his partisanship, and whatever your own political allegiance, his arguments need to be taken seriously. As the movie points out, the right to vote is probably the most precious component of a constitutional democracy like ours, and any effort to deny voters that right is a threat to the nation.
The movie begins with a look at the tactics used to disenfranchise Florida's Black voters during the 2000 presidential contest that elected George Bush, even though Al Gore won more votes. While the media focused on hanging chads, the real skullduggery was buried on the back pages of newspapers or skipped over by TV news.
African-Americans were kept away from the polls by roadblocks like an insufficient number of voting machines for their precincts and a felon list that was 97 percent inaccurate. Convicted felons are ineligible to vote. Choice Point, the private company hired to generate the list, used only an 80 percent match on names and had no verification system.
"American Blackout" won the 2006 Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize. It spotlights the political career of African-American Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. Director Ian Inaba argues that Republican leaders used questionable tactics to defeat Rep. McKinney twice because of her criticisms of George W. Bush and his administration.
The strategy was to back a conservative Democratic opponent in Ms. McKinney's district, and then get Republicans to cross over in an open primary, where voters can cast a vote for either party. A "Variety" review of the movie suggests that both political parties use the crossover ploy in states that have open primaries, but "American Blackout" accumulates enough evidence to make the viewer wonder why open primaries are even legal.
Congresswoman McKinney's criticisms of the Bush administration included its handling of the 9/11 attack, and the movie shows footage that demonstrates the way "Crossfire" patched together out-of-context quotes that helped paint Ms. McKinney as a conspiracy nut. Director Inaba is not so partisan that he leaves out interviews with voters who suggested that, at the time, no one wanted to hear any criticism about how 9/11 was handled. He also shows that some of Ms. McKinney's donors were of Arab descent, feeding paranoid claims that she was taking money from terrorists. Ms. McKinney lost the 2002 primary, marshaled her supporters and won back her congressional seat in 2004, but then lost it again in the 2006 primary.
"American Blackout" shows that voter disenfranchisement cropped up again in Ohio during the 2004 election. The provisional voting act intended to prevent disenfranchisement didn't work as intended. Many Black precincts in Ohio actually lost voting machines in 2004.
Ohio's Secretary of State Kenneth (CK) Blackwell, who, like Katharine Harris in Florida served as chair of the Bush re-election campaign for his state, claimed Ohio had no problems with people having to wait in long lines to vote. "American Blackout" demonstrates the opposite with footage of African-Americans waiting in the pouring rain.
California Senator Barbara Boxer was the only elected official in Congress to raise an objection about the 2004 problems with vote counting. Once again, the fourth estate neglected its duties, failing to uncover Ohio's voter irregularities in the first place, then neglecting to cover the lack of Congressional debate over voter irregularities.
The movie makes an effort not to rant; it provides facts and arguments for its positions. It includes a lively animated rap sequence. It also uses archival footage of pre-Voter Rights Act marches in Alabama, when Congressman Lewis points to similarities between that era and recent problems with voting. It does a good job of energizing its talking heads, too often visually boring in documentary filmmaking.
In many ways, documentary filmmaking has surpassed newspapers and TV news shows in its ability to disseminate the kinds of information the public needs in order to be informed voters in our complex world. The Martha's Vineyard Film Society should be commended for providing Islanders with the opportunity to see this scathing indictment of contemporary voting manipulation techniques. With large numbers of Americans registering to vote and participating in the primary process for the 2008 Presidential election, its screening couldn't be more timely.
"American Blackout," Saturday, Feb. 16, 7:30 pm. Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Doors open at 7 pm. Tickets $8; $5 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society Members. Natalie Dickerson, president of the Martha's Vineyard Chapter of the NAACP will lead a discussion after the film.
Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.