Documentary Focuses on Grassroots Voting

By Cindy George

The opening scene of the documentary Metcalfe Park: Black Vote Rising shows long lines in Milwaukee during the Wisconsin primary election in April. In the scene, Metcalf resident Melody McCurtis drives an outreach van and uses a bullhorn to notify her neighbors of free food and household items.

Metcalfe Park chronicles the work of McCurtis and her mother, Danell Cross, in their fight to educate and motivate Metcalfe residents to vote. They employ their fierce personalities to quell skepticism and correct misinformation.

McCurtis is the deputy director of Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, a nonprofit serving a predominantly Black Milwaukee neighborhood where about half of residents live below the poverty level. Cross serves as the organization’s executive director.

While walking the neighborhood and knocking on doors, the pair persuades one reluctant resident who doesn’t think her vote will make a difference and they celebrate with another who is dropping off her mail-in ballot that day.

“My whole job is to outmaneuver the systematic racism in Milwaukee,” McCurtis, 27, said in the film. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

The 10-minute short was released in late October on The Intercept’s website. A broadcast version of 25 to 30 minutes is expected in the next few months, said Miela Fetaw, a 25-year-old writer, filmmaker and social strategist who is co-director and co-producer of the film. Brad Lichtenstein, founder of the Milwaukee-based 371 Productions, is the other co-director and co-producer.

“The intent was to highlight Metcalfe Park and the work that two powerful Black women are doing in a city,” Fetaw said. “I hope that people take away that Black women constantly make a movement move and … recognize that the power really belongs to the people.”

The Wisconsin April primary was a snapshot of what the general election would look like. It was held at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and prompted public health officials to close and consolidate polling places. The result? Long lines in some areas – especially more urban ones like Metcalfe Park, which tend to lean Democrat, and less so in more rural, Republican locales.

Milwaukee, the state’s most populous city with the largest share of the state’s voters of color, felt the greatest effect of having fewer polling stations and poll workers available. Only five of its 180 voting sites were open.

“I had to really choose my health over exercising my right to vote,” McCurtis said in the film.

That’s one reason she agreed to join a federal lawsuit alleging that the state legislature’s failure to postpone the April 7 election disenfranchised voters concerned about their health amid COVID-19 and others who encountered absentee ballot issues. In the film, Jay Urban, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that about 9 percent of all Wisconsin voters were disenfranchised during the April primary and that the figure was higher in communities of color.

In addition to distributing food, household items, hygiene products, Metcalfe Park Community Bridges also included a voting guide and information about the census because of limited internet access in some homes. McCurtis and Cross also included “safety voting kits” which contained masks and sanitizers for those who chose to vote in person on Election Day.

“People are power. We are stronger together, seriously,” McCurtis said in an interview with The Crisis. “The time is now to get together … so we can build the world that we want to see.”

Cindy George is a freelance journalist in Houston.