I do sincerely hate a soapbox. Which is why I love Margaret Brown. In her Emmy-nominated film “The Great Invisible,” she managed to explore environmental destruction without sounding like a college freshman. No matter the subject, she tells stories in such a way that we don’t need her to manipulate already-powerful facts as she presents them, and she has done so again in a taut 11 minutes in her latest, “The Black Belt.”
A short film you can stream at the website The Intercept, “The Black Belt” examines voting rights in Alabama following the closure of 31 driver’s license offices in rural, predominantly black districts. Alabama boasts one of the most difficult voting processes, hinging on the voter ID requirements, so eliminating the office where one obtains this ID directly impacts the process.
Brown spoke to some of the people behind the decision to close the offices — purported to result in a measly $100,000 in budget savings — and also followed the administrative response to the closing, which involved dispatching “Mobile Voter ID Units” to these areas instead.
These mobile units provide a memorable scene, in which an affable man at a folding table attempts to make driver’s licenses for people while every component of his operation falls down or blows over. Brown’s camera simply takes it all in.
In an interview with Secretary of State John Merrill, Brown asks why Alabama’s photo ID voting laws are in place, and Merrill gives a very flimsy, anecdotal story about casual voter fraud. Mobile County Commissioner and attorney Merceria Ludgood characterizes these laws as blatantly racially motivated suppression, making the point the alleged voter fraud is simply unproven.
“The Black Belt” spends time in Selma, where the history of Civil Rights is everywhere and, in 11 short minutes, makes the argument that the struggle continues. Brown doesn’t lionize or demonize; both Hank Sanders, an African-American state senator, and John Merrill quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How those words strike you is a matter of interpretation.
“The Black Belt” made its world premiere at the South by Southwest Festival and won the Short Grand Jury Prize at the Dallas International Film Festival. Now you can watch it any time at www.theintercept.com/fieldofvision/the-black-belt/.
Field of Vision is a filmmaker-driven visual journalism film unit that pairs filmmakers with developing and ongoing stories around the globe. It is the visual arm of The Intercept, a website dedicated to producing “fearless, adversarial journalism.”
The website is actually full of fascinating short documentaries like “The Black Belt,” including one about the “click farms” driving social media trends from Bangladesh, and one about the graffiti activists who hacked the set of the Showtime series “Homeland” and made global headlines.
Amid such heavyweight company, Margaret Brown has once again turned a documentarian’s eye on her home turf, subverting the “local girl makes good” trope just a bit. She “makes good” by making us look at ourselves.