I'm a little wary of political screeds that pretend to be documentaries, and I'm very wary of screeds that preach to the converted. American Blackout purports to examine the claims of disenfranchised African-American voters during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, but in the end it sacrifice the outrage of those stories for the shakier ground of canonizing ex-U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney.
The film touches on some of the election-day horror stories that befell many black voters in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio four years later. The Florida fiasco is particularly shocking. While most news media outlets at the time concentrated on dimpled and hanging chads in Broward, Dade and Palm Beach counties, untold numbers of other Floridians were deprived of the right to vote altogether. Thousands of voters wrongly identified as felons were erroneously kicked off the rolls. The private-sector company in charge of the voter-roll operation, ChoicePoint, evidently faced little to no accountability for clearing the rolls of what might have been as many of 90,000 voters.
It's debatable whether McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, was the best choice to lead the call for a federal investigation of the mess. American Blackout director Ian Inaba certainly thinks so. After a disappointingly abbreviated examination of the Florida case, the film turns sharply into a hagiographic profile of McKinney. To her credit, McKinney was the most zealous lawmaker to demand congressional hearings. To her discredit, however, she seemed all too willing to embrace an array of conspiracy theories surrounding the 9-11 attacks and the Iraq War.
The documentary finally picks up some steam toward its conclusion, when it visits allegations of voter fraud in Ohio during the 2004 presidential contest. Perhaps most alarming is American Blackout's contention that 74 percent of wards in chiefly African-American communities had fewer voting machines in 2004 than four years earlier. The shortage meant long lines of voters that scared off many who didn't want to wait hours to cast a ballot. It also didn't exactly boost voter confidence in the integrity of the system that Ohio's top elections official, Ken Blackwell (running for governor of that state as of this writing), chaired President Bush's re-election campaign in Ohio (just as Florida's then-secretary of state, Katherine Harris, had done for the Sunshine State in 2000).
While McKinney gets star billing in American Blackout, the movie boasts a number of other voices to make its case, including left-wing journalist Greg Palast and Congressional Black Caucus members Reps. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Stephanie Tubbis-Jones (D-Ohio). Only rarely do the interviews produce much insight. U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia is a notable exception; his recollection of the civil rights protests that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a moving evocation to that troubled time.
In the final analysis, American Blackout is less interested in edification than it is agitating a partisan audience already predisposed to outrage. McKinney's incendiary suggestions of White House prior knowledge in the 9-11 attacks -- no matter how much she tries here to nuance and backpedal from such remarks -- don't boost her credibility. Nor does it help that the film indulges in some bellyaching about how Republican operatives scuttled her 2002 primary by bolstering her Democratic challenger. Hey, that's called politics. It happens. Underhanded strategy doesn't necessarily make it unfair.
One thing is clear by film's end: Cynthia McKinney is too forceful a personality to be counted out. Although she lost her Democratic primary earlier this year, it surely won't be the last America hears from this driven, passionate and polarizing politician.
Shown in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the American Blackout DVD is clear and sharp. Nothing remarkable, but the print transfer is clean and showcases solid production values.
Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0. The former is obviously a richer sound, but American Blackout is a talky film that demands only that you can understand what its interviewees are saying.
Clocking in a little past 20 minutes, seven deleted scenes reveal how much more one-sided this already tilted documentary could have been. One scene in particular shows McKinney's father displaying some seriously ugly anti-Semitism, a viewpoint that his daughter doesn't exactly disavow.
The Last Plantation: Capitol Hill Police Speak Out takes an unusual step to address McKinney's infamous slapping of a Capitol Hill police officer (an incident that undoubtedly contributed to her primary loss in 2006). Four officers are interviewed here, their identities hidden through silhouette and distorted voices, to allege rampant racism on the part of Capitol Hill police. The nine-minute, 29-second piece tosses out a litany of accusations, the most salient one being that the Hill's white officers often give black lawmakers a hard time by pretending they are not recognized. Whether any of this is true is anyone's guess, especially since the DVD's producers apparently didn't give Capitol Hill police leaders an opportunity to respond. Even all the allegations are accurate, does that justify a congresswoman losing her cool and slapping an officer of the law?
On the Road Q & A: Audience Response is a six-minute, 24-second post-screening interaction between McKinney and an audience. Don't expect much illumination on the film itself.
The extras include a 19-minute abridged version of the film. Titled American Blackout: Ohio 2004, the so-called "activist's tool" compresses the documentary's material that relates to the 2000 election in Florida and 2004 election in Ohio. Such scenes are easily the most compelling parts of American Blackout. If director Inaba had concentrated more on these outrageous stories and less on the ostensible persecution of Cynthia McKinney, this could've been a truly worthwhile film.
A Get Involved segment provides contact information for several voter empowerment organizations and urges viewers to learn more about voter activism by logging on to www.AmericanBlackout.com. Rounding out the supplemental materials is a theatrical trailer.
The guts of American Blackout can be gleaned in the bonus feature that centers on the troubled 2000 presidential election in Florida and the '04 election in Ohio. Unfortunately, the documentary itself loses its way in its uncritical praise of ex-U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.