'Slay the Dragon': Film Review

Sam Russell/Tribeca Film Festival
More hope than usual in blood-boiling politi-doc.
4/3/2020

Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman's doc shows how gerrymandering got so bad and how it might be stopped.

An indignant, activist doc about one of those subjects most people agree is crucial but unsexy, Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman's Slay the Dragon takes up the scourge of gerrymandering. Viewers who don't need that word explained to them — it's the convoluted drawing of legislative district boundaries, done in favor of the governing political party — may feel a feature film is overkill. But most will learn something here, in a film that both follows the practice to its natural, dire conclusions and champions the ordinary citizens who have stepped up to fight against it.

The doc acknowledges that seeking advantage in map-making goes back hundreds of years, and has been done not only by Democrats and Republicans, but by parties preceding them. Durrance and Goodman show how a group of Republicans made this bipartisan sin their own, though, taking thumb-on-the-scale tactics to undemocratic extremes Elbridge Gerry could hardly have dreamed of when it was named after him in the 1800s.

First, they set the stage by showing one concrete, deadly consequence of the practice: The film says the Flint water crisis, which killed a dozen people and exposed thousands to lead poisoning, was the direct result of policies undertaken by lawmakers who had no fear of public opinion. Having redrawn districts so that it was nearly impossible for them to be voted out of office, they could put chunks of Michigan under the rule of "virtual dictators" who set harmful public policy without citizen input.

Around this time, a Michigan "political neophyte" came to see gerrymandering as an issue worth fighting. Putting out a call on social media, Katie Fahey quickly found herself helming a group called Voters Not Politicians, holding town halls and conceiving a new, nonpartisan way of drawing the state's legislative districts.

The doc checks in on VNP's campaign intermittently, but spends more of its time understanding the urgency of their fight. It explains how the current wave of extreme gerrymandering took shape, tracing everything to Republican panic when the 2008 election of Barack Obama forced them to confront America's changing demographics.

Slay the Dragon interviews Republican Chris Jankowski, who saw a way to cement his party's rule even if majorities of electorates voted for Democrats. His REDMAP project focused on electing candidates in low-level races that would be influential after during the post-census redistricting process. Raising donations from Walmart, Big Tobacco and the Koch brothers, he helped candidates win all over the country, and then offered those politicians free consultants when it was time to draw the maps.

After redistricting, shocking disparities turned up. Redistricting expert Stephen Wolf describes several 2012 cases like Pennsylvania's election, where Democrats bested Republicans with 2.79 million votes to 2.71 million — but Republicans somehow won more than twice as many seats, 13 to 5. And those emboldened Republican governors and state houses started pushing some of the most extreme legislation they could dream up, including a slew of voter-suppression measures — much of it coordinated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose co-founder Paul Weyrich was explicit about not wanting all Americans to vote.

As much doom as we get here, Goodman and Durrance find widespread cause for optimism as well — in groups of citizens who launch ballot initiatives or sue their states directly over maps designed to make their votes pointless. Things have gotten so bad, the doc believes, that Americans will finally insist on a standardized, equitable process. The filmmakers even find a Republican or two who agree. Here's hoping they're not alone.

Production company: Ark Media
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Directors: Barak Goodman, Chris Durrance
Executive producers: Coralie Charriol Paul, Jeff Skoll, William von Mueffling, Diane Weyermann
Director of photography: Sam Russell
Editor: Seth Bomse
Composer: Gary Lionelli

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes