Capturing the Flag Takes a Hard Outsider's Look at the Ugly Reality of Voting in North Carolina | Full Frame Documentary Film Festival | Indy Week
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Capturing the Flag Takes a Hard Outsider's Look at the Ugly Reality of Voting in North Carolina 

Capturing the Flag, an often infuriating documentary about voting suppression in North Carolina, climaxes in a hotel room in Cumberland County, where three exhausted election volunteers are sprawled on beds watching the 2016 returns come in on the television. Being liberals who traveled to the state from New York City, they are dismayed by what they're watching.

One, Steven Miller, is especially losing his shit. "What the fuck are they all voting for?" he yells to no one in particular.

For those of us who lived through that night with similar convulsions of horror and disbelief, watching that scene elicits something like posttraumatic stress. It's also a weird way to end a movie about voting rights in the Tar Heel state. After all, while Wisconsin's draconian voter ID law may have helped throw that state to Donald Trump—one analysis found that as many as forty-five thousand people there were deterred from voting in a state Trump won by fewer than twenty-three thousand votes—North Carolina's similarly naked attempts to suppress African-American votes never went into effect

The bottom line of 2016 was this: Clinton didn't excite voters, and Trump, as loathed as he was, hit a royal flush, winning exactly the states he needed to win with the tiniest of margins. And that is how we got this bungling disaster of a presidency.

But that's not to say the right to vote isn't endangered, or that there aren't active, ongoing efforts to disenfranchise minorities. There are. Straightaway, the film describes these efforts, starting with the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which overturned part of the Voting Rights Act and opened up a Pandora's box for Republican states that wanted to make it harder for Democrats to vote.

This manifested, among other places, in North Carolina, which restricted Sunday voting and implemented a strict voter ID law under Governor Pat McCrory. That law was later struck down by the courts, but by 2016 these efforts had solidified the state's reputation for antagonism to voting rights.

That sets the backdrop for Capturing the Flag, which begins a few days before the election. Laverne Berry, a Brooklyn entertainment lawyer, and her friends Miller and Claire Wright are planning to head to the center of the storm, North Carolina, to serve as election monitors for the Democratic Party.

Director Anne de Mare says she first conceived of this story through Berry, who was doing work for one of the film's producers. Berry mentioned to the producer that she needed to get things wrapped up before the election because she had to do voting-rights work; the producer's interest was piqued, and she called de Mare, who was intrigued. It wasn't a deliberate choice to focus on North Carolina, she says. It was just that this was where Berry was headed, and de Mare's cameras followed.

What they found when they arrived in Fayetteville was a lot of confusion and frustration, less brazenly malicious attempts to block the vote—at least at the precinct level—than a bureaucratic mess that just so happened to disproportionately affect black voters.

There were the three thousand voters whose names were purged from the voting rolls just before the elections, only to have them restored by a federal judge.

There was the voter who was told she didn't appear on the rolls even though she'd voted in the primary.

There was another voter who was turned away from three different polling stations, and yet another who learned that the DMV lost his paperwork, and yet another who was told to return with an ID even though the voter ID law had been struck down.

There were long lines and lots and lots of conflicting information.

The subtlety with which this kind of suppression happens is significant. It's not as stark as a poll tax or a literacy test.

It's a lot of little things that can add up to a big thing.

"Voter suppression looks a lot different than it did in the fifties or sixties," de Mare says. "It's neglect, lack of funds, shifting legislation, a sense of confusion. I by no means think these issues are specific to North Carolina. But North Carolina has had some of the most high-profile instances."

After the film makes its world premiere at Full Frame on Sunday afternoon, de Mare and Capturing the Flag's protagonists will sit for a moderated conversation.

That's the part, de Mare says, that she's most "looking forward to and a little nervous about. We really need to understand that there is a role for us to play in this process—people asking themselves, how can I participate?"

The answer to that question, she says, is to get involved in pro-democracy organizations.

But she adds that "we need to lead the leaders"—for the politicians on Jones Street, it's in their interest to make it difficult for minorities to vote. That's why we see gerrymandering and efforts to enact voter ID laws. At its core, it's about the consolidation and concentration of power and the fear of what a true democracy would mean for the powerful. So to convince lawmakers to protect voting rights, she argues, we need to organize—to get loud.

"I learned a lot in this process, in a lot of different ways," de Mare says. "The overwhelming takeaway is that we've been really careless with the way we take care of our election process. We really don't invest in the process of elections to the extent we need to."

Correction: This story originally stated that Cumberland County had reduced its number of voting times and locations. That was incorrect. The INDY regrets the error.

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