If the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the Presidency didn’t already make it clear, elections matter; they have very real consequences for individuals within a country. As the new documentary “Slay the Dragon,” out this Friday, makes even more obvious for those who didn’t know, local elections matter as well.
Directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance, “Slay the Dragon” exposes how one effort, REDMAP, put into place by Republican strategist Chris Jankowski, helped turn state houses Republican during the 2010 election. The goal of that action was to draw new districting lines using the 2010 census to ensure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Republicans would stay in power in various states no matter how many people voted for Democrats.
As the movie documents, the strategy worked. States like Wisconsin saw the vast majority of individuals vote for Democrats in 2012 and yet the legislature remained in Republican hands.
Beyond that though, and this is one of the crucial points of the film, while the process of gerrymandering has existed in the past, the tools available to gerrymander and the way in which they were implemented in 2010 allowed for a much more severe version of the process to take place.
There is, “Slay the Dragon” notes, still hope for those who have been disenfranchised. Citizens are stating to rise up and demand anti-gerrymandering laws. State constitutions are being amended (or attempts are being made to amend them). Grassroots organizations are fighting the results of REDMAP.
Despite the good taking place in response, watching the documentary is enough to make one’s blood boil, and things only get worse when the film explains that this gerrymandering has led to even more polarization in political parties. Incumbents in many districts now only have to be worried about primary challenges, not the general election, and that pushes them further into their own corners. It leads to the end of the moderate, the end of reaching across the aisle, and the dumbing down of the American political field.
“Slay the Dragon” is, of course, not able to discuss the recent Coronavirus outbreak (and I write this review as everything is in the process of shutting down), but it feels important to note that the movie would have a lot to say about the virus if it could. The dumbing down of the American political system is in no small part due to its being pushed to extremism and the lack of intelligence within the system has, without a doubt, led to deaths caused by Coronavirus. From people being forced to wait in massive lines at airports to Congressional Representatives telling folks that now is a great time to go out to restaurants to fools suggesting that the illness is a “Democratic hoax,” extremism costs lives and that extremism is enabled by gerrymandering.
As angering and involving as the documentary is, and as compelling as the stories about groups rising up to take back the country are, the entirety of the film never seems to go deep enough. There are on camera interviews conducted here, but on too many occasions they feel complacent, happy to accept the answers being given by the interviewees, never pushing things quite far enough or closing the loop.
That style of interviewing is at odds with the very much anti-gerrymandering stance the rest of the movie takes. “Slay the Dragon” puts a lot of blame at the feet of Jankowski. They somehow have this man sitting down for an interview, but viewer doesn’t get to see Jankowski in a position where he is forced into the uncomfortable of position of having to truly and seriously reflect, in depth, on what has happened as a result of his actions. Never do Goodman and Durrance make Jankowski fully defend or apologize for that which he has wrought.
That set of questions—the ones that spring from asking Jankowski how he feels about REDMAP today, knowing what it led to—are crucial. In the documentary’s view, Jankowski has helped to send our nation down a very dark path. How then can he not be held to account in complete fashion? After all, as the documentary notes, gerrymandering caused the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and just like with the Coronavirus now, people lost their lives because of it.
And so, “Slay the Dragon” winds up feeling like a good but imperfect work. Much like one of the organizations fighting to end gerrymandering, Voters Not Politicians, that the documentary follows, the movie feels like the work of people still trying to fully understand how to harness their power and make the strongest case possible. There is, perhaps something to be said for this notion of a groundswell, of neophytes learning the levers of power, but there is something frustrating in there as well when it is clear it could be used to greater effect.
“Slay the Dragon” is a prosecutorial documentary — it is building a case against gerrymandering and while Goodman and Durrance offer enough to convict, the viewer can’t help but feel that more parties should have been indicted.
photo credit: Magnolia Films