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'The Vote' review: Remarkable tour of largely forgotten history

In this image from part one of PBS'

In this image from part one of PBS' "The Vote," Inez Milholland campaigns for women's right to vote in 1912 New York.   Credit: Bain News Collection/Library of Congress

DOCUMENTARY "The Vote" on PBS' "American Experience"

WHEN|WHERE Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The 19th Amendment, which prohibits the denial of the right to vote on the basis of sex, was officially adopted on August 26, 1920. Therein lies a particularly complicated story: This two-parter begins with Alice Paul, the Quaker who turned suffrage into a national movement and who fought for federal ratification while bypassing the states (Monday). Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, then sought a middle course to Paul's more radical approach as a means of securing President Woodrow Wilson's reluctant support (Tuesday). Meanwhile, early civil rights leader Ida B. Wells sought to get Black women the vote, too. Her battle was hardest of all. 

This "American Experience" — linchpin of public TV's "Trailblazers" summer series of programs that honor the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage — was written and directed by Michelle Ferrari ("Seabiscuit"). 

MY SAY "The past is a foreign country," goes the old quote. "They do things differently there." And by way of the perfect example — did you know that women once did not have the right to vote? Did you know women fought for more than 70 years to earn the right? Did you know that the constitutional amendment which was ratified just 100 years ago finally secured that right?

 Of course you know. Who doesn't? But "knowing" and actually "fathoming" are two separate matters. One hundred years hence, this all still feels so unfathomable. "The Vote" easily takes care of that. After four hours, it becomes fathomable, all right.

That it does take four hours, hundreds of stills, a vast trove of antique footage, some first-rate commentary and a clean, uncluttered throughline which cuts through an immensely complex history should give you a sense of just how considerable this accomplishment is. But "The Vote" — either through osmosis or sheer grit — embraces the spirit of its subject. The story is long but well-worth telling. Well-worth watching too. 

By the way, the first night's best. The fantastical weirdness of this battle really hits home then.

As told so vividly here, the history is characterized by big personalities, schisms, factions, ideological and regional divides, and hierarchical power moves. Politics and money are a huge part of it. So is the original American sin: Racism. 

There are heroes — Paul, Catt, even Wilson whose name was recently stripped from Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs because of his own racism. There are villains but — because they land so completely on the losing side of history — they seem to fade away into the sepia-toned background

But set aside all these manifold details, and what "The Vote" really does is explore the question of equality. Specifically: Who is equal under the law? The Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence long ago spelled out the answers, but the story of suffrage — to an extent, the story of America — was often a willful misspelling of them.

Meanwhile, "The Vote" — tacitly, perhaps, but unmistakably — insists that the old, painful question of equal justice remains as urgent as ever. The past isn't a foreign country at all and — you know the kicker — it's not even past. 

BOTTOM LINE A remarkable tour of largely forgotten history.

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