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Film Review: In Gripping “Slay the Dragon,” the Gerrymandered Beast Looms Large

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 13th, 2020

Film poster: “Slay the Dragon”

Slay the Dragon (Chris Durrance/Barak Goodman, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.

“Democracy never lasts long,” wrote John Adams, this nation’s second president, and though our own system has continued over two hundred years past that declaration, mere centuries amount to very little in the narrative of humankind. While no one can predict the future, the present looks bleak, with voters increasingly disenfranchised in a variety of ways. Forget the hacking of voting machines: all one needs do is to make sure that votes don’t count, or count very little. Enter gerrymandering, a practice almost as old as Adam’s presidency, whereby electoral districts are drawn on a map to concentrate populations loyal to one political party or another into concentrated voting blocks, thereby almost guaranteeing a consistently partisan result come election time. As we learn in directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman’s taut thriller of a documentary, Slay the Dragon, this already problematic custom was kicked into high gear after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and now we live in a version of America that is the least democratic it’s been since the before the Civil Rights era. Time to fight back.

Using interviews with a variety of writers, thinkers and actors in today’s electoral drama, Durrance (Gerald R. Ford: A Test of Character) and Goodman (Oklahoma City) first walk us through the history of the word “gerrymander” itself – it was coined by a Boston cartoonist in 1812 who felt that a new partisan district drawn by the then governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, resembled a salamander – before introducing us to current anti-gerrymandering activists in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Though the film discusses cases elsewhere, as well, these three states form the spine of the story. At the center of the whirlwind sits the nonprofit organization Voters Not Politicians (VPN), founded by a young Michigan woman, Katie Fahey. Though her grassroots movement garners early support from many voters, it’s an uphill climb against those in power. VPN soon inspires similar movements in other states, and we follow those developments, as well. As dispiriting as our ailing democracy may appear, seeing the forceful actions of people like Fahey and her associates is inspiring. If we can’t predict the future, at least we can believe in it.

Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians in SLAY THE DRAGON ©Magnolia Pictures

Many of the talking-head experts are as fascinating to listen to as is the unfolding onscreen drama. They include David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count; Ari Berman, of Mother Jones; and, perhaps especially, Chris Jankowski, former Executive Director of the now discontinued REDMAP Project of the Republican State Leadership Committee, who explains in detail the GOP plan to target the 2010 census as a way to gain greater control over the redistricting process, state by state, for his party. One may agree or disagree with Jankowski’s beliefs and methods, but he’s worth listening to. Know thy enemy. To be fair, the Democratic Party engages in gerrymandering, as well, but to a far less widespread and pernicious way. And so it goes in this gripping movie, where we are buffeted by the positive and negative tendencies of our time. Will we slay the salamander-turned-dragon before it is too late? Only the future can tell.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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