Margaret Brown’s short documentary “The Black Belt”, which you can (and should) watch right here, takes its title from the region in Alabama where the state shut down 31 driver’s license offices in 2015. Purportedly this was for budgetary reasons, though many suspected the objective was more nefarious, that this shutting down was a means to deny the area’s many African-Americans a more convenient method of registering to vote. And if Brown does devote a good chunk of her 11 minute running time to talking heads, demonstrating opposing views in the idea of the state’s attitude toward voter fraud, where the Secretary of State can only mount absurd-sounding anecdotal evidence of this fraud that leaves a separately interviewed county commissioner fed up, her real tack here is simply to step aside and train her camera on the people and on the area.
You see this most acutely in the mobile voter ID unit that is dispatched to rural areas to get people who otherwise would be unable to get to DMVs so far away to get registered. Brown hangs back with her camera and simply watches what amounts to a slow-burning comic revue unfold as the lone man manning the desk has his documents blown away in the wind, the backdrop for the picture ID refuse to stay up, and the ID itself refuse to print. He promises the identification will be mailed to the woman we see him assisting, but you would be forgiven for having your doubts. Whether this is mere incompetence or incompetence born of something more reprehensible is left up to the viewer to interpret, but after this display it’s hard not to see the sign “The Vote Is Our Hope” and shake your head.
Later, the camera is positioned in the front seat of a car, coming up to and crossing a bridge, and as the shot plays out, you realize it is the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday conflict of 1965, where so many years ago Martin Luther King Jr. led so many in the March from Selma to Montgomery in an effort to raise awareness for black voting rights. And almost as soon as you realize where they are, Brown cuts to archival footage of the March to Selma itself. And while the moment is capped by Alabama Senator Hank Sanders explaining the public misconception that change was quick to come in the wake of Selma, this transition from present to evokes the observation of Sanders just as swiftly and evocatively, how what happened then continues to echo in the present, and how anyone who thinks the past is past is pointedly refusing to pay attention.