PEOPLE has the first look at The Vote starring Broadway star Audra McDonald, who voices Ida B. Wells in a new PBS documentary about the untold history of the women's suffrage movement

By Sean Neumann
June 15, 2020 04:55 PM
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Audra McDonald may be used to sharing her voice in front of crowds at legendary Broadway theaters, but this time the accomplished actress is lending her to the small screen in the name of history.

McDonald, a six-time Tony Award-winning actress, gives voice to civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells in a new PBS documentary, The Vote, which tells the "dramatic story of the epic — and surprisingly unfamiliar — crusade waged by American women for the right to vote," according to PBS.

The documentary is exclusively previewed above.

Wells was one of the early American civil rights activists and dedicated her career to reporting on the brutal treatment of the black community in the South in the late 1800s, and she was also a key player in the women's suffrage movement.

"Focusing primarily on the movement’s militant and momentous final decade, the film charts American women’s determined march to the ballot box, and illuminates the myriad social, political and cultural obstacles that stood in their path," according to PBS. "The Vote delves deeply into the animating controversies that divided the nation in the early 20th century — gender, race, state's rights, and political power — and offers an absorbing lesson in the delicate, often fractious dynamics of social change."

One social issue that still divides the nation today: racial injustice.

"Having been deprived of the ballot, African Americans have been robbed of their only weapon of defense," narrator and Scandal actress Kate Burton says in the four-hour film.

The Vote is part of PBS's long-running American Experience documentary series and will air as a two-part documentary on July 6-7.

McDonald, 49, joins actresses Laura Linney, who voices Carrie Chapman Catt, Mae Whitman (Alice Paul), and Patricia Clarkson (Harriot Stanton Blatch) in voicing some of the most prominent women who led the women's suffrage movement.

Audra McDonald (left) and Ida B. Wells
Paul Morigi/Getty; PBS

As PBS' new doc explores, the movement faced its own internal clashes over race.

"With no sacredness of the ballot, there can be no sacredness of human life itself,” McDonald says in the doc, reading Wells' archived text. "For if the strong can take the weak man's ballot when it suits his purpose to do so, he will take his life also. Therefore, the more complete the disenfranchisement, the more frequent and horrible has been the hangings, shootings, and burnings."

Black women had "seen what it meant to have African American men disenfranchised in the South and they realized it's very important for women to have the vote," the new doc explains. "They see it as part of the larger struggle for racial justice."

Wells, who was born into slavery months before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, became one of the leading activists in that larger struggle for racial equality while pushing for women's right to vote.

“The hard-fought campaign waged by American women for the right to vote was a truly transformative cultural and political movement, resulting in the largest expansion of voting rights in American history,” the doc's executive producer, Susan Bellows, said in a statement. “It’s also a story that has usually been reduced to a single page in the history books. The Vote restores this complex story to its rightful place in our history, providing a rich and clear-eyed look at a movement that resonates as much now as ever.”

Audra McDonald attends the 25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 12, 2020 in Santa Monica, California.
Frazer Harrison/Getty

As recently as last week, the ongoing debate over voter disenfranchisement and suppression made headlines in the U.S. again after Georgia's controversial primary election, which left some voters in primarily black communities waiting in long lines for hours to get the chance to vote.

The documentary's writer, director and producer Michelle Ferrari laid out the parallels between women's battle for the right to vote and ongoing social and political protests today.

Ferrari says "the lengths to which women had to go in their pursuit of the ballot will likely come as a surprise to most viewers."

“How many people are aware that suffragists were the first Americans to picket the White House? Ferrari says. "That those women were jailed, went on hunger strikes and were force-fed by authorities? And that the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience, which we usually associate with the Civil Rights Movement, were employed first by women fighting for the right to vote?"