The concept of gerrymandering has been a part of America’s electoral process for generations, but has only gained attention in recent years, as partisan efforts to exploit it have accelerated. Every decade, states go through a labyrinthine process of redistricting, with the ruling party often doodling new lines across local maps that put the voters at the mercy of the people in control. Can you say undemocratic? So can much of the GOP, which picked up its partisan gerrymandering efforts after the 2008 presidential election, and continues using them to exercise control on elections across the country.
“Slay the Dragon,” a slick and eye-opening documentary from directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman, encapsulates the latest efforts to correct that equation. While it doesn’t exactly bring new information to the table, the movie provides a welcome breakdown of the dramatic impact that gerrymandering has across American society whenever election season comes around. As it turns out, one of America’s biggest threats in 2020 predates the pandemic, and could stick around much longer.
But — cue the inspiring score — not if these people have anything to say about it! Having established the backlash to 2010 gerrymandering in Michigan, which allowed Republican leaders to take charge of the Flint water crisis despite voters rejecting their bills, “Slay the Dragon” finds a young heroine to embody its cause: Katie Fahey, a political novice and cheery activist whose social media attacks on the redistricting process ballooned into a statewide campaign that ultimately led the Michigan Supreme Court to strike down partisan gerrymandering last year.
Fahey’s backstory never gets explored and she materializes in the movie out of nowhere, as the filmmakers seem less invested in the human side of the story than its symbolic power, but it resonates nonetheless: Watching her go from a handful of followers to historic gamechanger provides the ultimate case study in what it takes to fight back against a seemingly invincible forces governing society. At the same time, “Slay the Dragon” doesn’t pretend the war has been won for good, and cuts between Fahey’s efforts with the mixed results that came from activists who took the issue of Wisconsin gerrymandering to the Supreme Court last year with mixed results.
Collectively, the dueling narratives illustrate just the mounting pushback to gerrymandering on the local level, just in time for viewers to wonder how it might impact their lives after this year’s census.
Such timeliness makes “Slay the Dragon” something of an update and sequel to “Gerrymandering,” Jeff Reichert’s 2010 documentary on the redistricting process that focuses California’s Proposition 11 campaign. Those efforts effectively stopped the state legislature from gerrymandering its constituents and allowed a third party to mandate the boundaries. The two movies provide similar historical overviews, though “Slay the Dragon” covers the more immediate impact of GOP exploitation that precipitated the party’s 2016 takeover, from ominous gerrymandering “superstar” Tom Hofeller to “Project REDMAP” pioneer Chris Jankowski, whose efforts unfold through ironic music cues and animated charts that expose the complete intricacies of their national coup: Exploiting a concept that stretches back to former Vice President Eldridge Gerry, they enact a state-by-state effort to sketch outrageous mazes around Republican districts to narrow the impact of Democratic voters as much as possible.
The outcome results in ludicrous cartographic variations on Roschach test, with graphics revealing gerrymandering districts that resemble everything from bats to elephants and cartoon characters. Talking heads break down the two processes — “packing” and “cracking” — revealing a meticulous and frequently upsetting system designed to squelch the will of the people at every turn.
“Slay the Dragon” never veers far from traditional agitprop rhythms, providing more of overview than investigation into its chief concern, but most viewers know so little about the evils of gerrymandering that this serviceable treatment will keep them engaged throughout. The movie ends with the cynical John Adams quote that “Democracy never lasts long,” and more than 100 years later, that assessment registers as an immediate threat. At the same time, “Slay the Dragon” provides a counter-narrative as the future remains uncertain. Democracy may be unstable, but the battle to preserve it has gotten louder than ever.
Magnolia Pictures releases “Slay the Dragon” on VOD on Friday, April 3.