Slay the Dragon
2020, PG-13, 101 min. Directed by Chris Durrance, Barak Goodman.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 17, 2020
The opening years of the 21st century have seen the dominance of the Republican Party in America because their strategists realized one thing: You don’t have to win on the issues if you eradicate the relevance of debate. Democrats have lost because they thought that being right was all that mattered and – most erroneously – that convincing the majority of people that they should support you won elections.
The reality, as any politics wonk of any stripe will tell you, is that what you need is to pack the courts (see Bush v. Gore) and then reshape every legislative district you can into a form where you can absolutely predict the outcome of any election. The latter is called gerrymandering and, as political documentary Slay the Dragon explores, it’s the most pressing political issue of the upcoming year.
Why is it so important? Because in 2008, the Republican State Leadership Committee set up the Redistricting Majority Project, aka Project REDMAP: an initiative to flip a series of state houses, then secure perpetual majorities in those states by gerrymandering districts. Their plan was to either crack Democratic seats (splitting ballot boxes across multiple safe Republican seats so their impact was negated) or pack them (shoving every disparate Democratic voter into one district, no matter how misshapen and illogical it is). That’s how, in state after state, the GOP can lose the popular vote by double digits but still hold the legislature with an overwhelming majority.
Here’s why that’s important: Because the census form you just submitted helps establish population counts, which feed into the next round of redistricting, which takes place next year. The GOP – which launched REDMAP because they feared that they were becoming a political irrelevancy due to outmoded policies and shifting demographics – is going to try the same tactics. The 2020 election isn’t just about who holds the White House for the next four years; it’s about whether U.S. elections really mean anything for the next decade.
That’s the hard-hitting message presented by Barak Goodman (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy) and Chris Durrance (Gerald R. Ford: A Test of Character). They don’t pretend that Republicans invented gerrymandering (the term actually predates the founding of the GOP by over four decades), but they make the chilling case that they’ve done it better and more aggressively than anyone had ever contemplated beforehand.
It’s a huge topic to embrace in one documentary, and the directing duo does so by setting one valiant struggle against the bigger picture. Amidst the infographic explanations and interviews with key players – including REDMAP’s boastful mastermind, Republican strategist Chris Jankowski – they concentrate on Katie Fahey, a self-described political independent from Michigan who was so horrified about what the GOP was doing that she launched an effort to ban partisan gerrymandering in her state. Her grassroots fight to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission wends its way through petitions, ballot boxes, and then courts (remember part one of the GOP perpetual power strategy?). It’s a classic, simple underdog story, but the truth is that the classics are classics for a damn good reason: They work.
An aside: Before becoming the Chronicle’s Screens editor, I spent a decade covering the Texas Legislature from the House and Senate press desk (I have the insomnia and floor credentials to prove it). When you know a subject in-depth, as a viewer, such documentaries often become simply a matter of observing the style and checking off the details. You don’t expect to learn anything (beyond possibly a reminder that gerrymandering is pronounced with a hard g, taking its name from redistricting pioneer Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry). Having spent the 2011 Texas legislative session tracking that year’s redistricting efforts, I saw up close and personal how Machiavellian and overt the GOP plan was, especially in Democratic-leaning Travis County. Republicans shuffled Democratic boxes out of then-State Representative Mark Strama’s purple district into Dawnna Dukes’ neighboring solidly Dem seat in an attempt to endanger a man they saw as a considerable threat if he ever went for a statewide run. At the same time, they doubled down on shoving as many Republican boxes as possible into Paul Workman’s GOP-held seat to keep him secure, even though it meant weakening their future chances against Donna Howard, his Democratic neighbor who barely fought off the 2010 tea party wave.
None of this is arcane or wasn’t widely reported at the time. When it came to redistricting, the GOP was not shy about saying the quiet bit loud, because they already had a brazenly gerrymandered supermajority and no one was going to stop them. Having seen this all up close and personal, I didn’t expect to learn anything from Slay the Dragon, bar that pronunciation reminder. And I didn’t.
Watching it, I didn’t just checklist the facts and wait for errors, because it so perfectly sums up the issue while telling an engrossing tale of a massive attack on the power of one person, one vote. This is the best primer on political gerrymandering imaginable and should be mandatory viewing in grad school public policy symposiums and high school civics classes alike. Slay the Dragon is simultaneously an education and an urgent wake-up call, and you better pay attention for both.
Slay the Dragon is currently available through Magnolia Films’ initiative whereby streaming rentals can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local art house cinemas. Choose from:
• AFS Cinema (opens April 10)
• Violet Crown Cinema (tickets here)