Directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance
We all know that gerrymandering is a threat to our democracy. Filmmakers Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance want us to understand how we can end this problem. But their documentary is sometimes scattered, unfocused, and conventional. It’s also occasionally boring.
Gerrymandering has been around almost as long as our nation. State legislators draw up districts in a way that gives one political party an advantage over another. Today, thanks to computers, gerrymandering is worse than it ever was before. Judging from this film, it’s the Republicans who make the most of it.
I don’t remember how many political documentaries I’ve seen in the last few years. They all pretty much agree with my own left-wing views, and I try not to score them on that merit. The question is how well they tell their story.
Like many such documentaries, this one has a likeable protagonist – Katie Fahey. When we first meet this Michigan native, she’s upset about a recent state election. Most Michigan citizens voted Democratic, yet the government is overwhelmingly Republican. The film starts with Flint’s bad water supply. Soon the state government is destroying unions.
Of course, the Republicans (almost always the villains in these documentaries) will do everything that stops Fahey and her crusade. Among other things, they have to go to the federal and the state supreme courts to get a proposition on the ballot. And when a court requires the Republicans to turn over certain hard drives, it’s clear that information has been intentionally destroyed.
In the middle of the movie, the story steers off to other fights in other states, and it’s here that it becomes repetitive. Let’s face it – the only people who will watch the film already hate gerrymandering (or at least Republican gerrymandering). Focusing on one state, and better yet one person, makes for a better story.
The best moments in Slay the Dragon involve animated maps and cartoons. Here you can really see what the state legislatures are doing. The best sequence in the film compares strange-looking districts to a bat, a snake, and two Disney characters.
Also using animation, the film gives us a history of gerrymandering. Here the filmmakers admit that this wasn’t always a Republican game – and still isn’t one. The Democrats have California pretty well sown up, although there’s no hint in the documentary that their gerrymandering is as sophisticated as the Republicans’.
When we finally do get back to Michigan, Fahey almost entirely disappears. Getting the proposition through the courts is a job for lawyers, not activists. But she comes back for the happy ending. Let’s hope there will be more of them.
With all the theaters closed, Slay the Dragon will open on Pay Per View services Friday.