Slay the Dragon Shows How Everyday People Can Mobilize to Rewrite the Political Rules
Released just after Census Day 2020--which marks the first step in the next decade’s new round of Congressional reapportionment and redistricting--Slay the Dragon isn’t the first documentary to try and tackle the issue of gerrymandering, and it probably won’t be the last. But by focusing on the everyday impacts of gerrymandering and the individuals fighting back against it, directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance have created an engaging and effective visual advocacy tool. Slay the Dragon begins by setting out the context and history of gerrymandering, with a particular focus on the post-2010 redistricting cycle. From a filmmaking perspective, it’s fairly conventional. Relying on crisply animated graphics and talking-head interviews with journalists, lawyers, and other experts, the filmmakers examine how technology, dark money spending, and the results of the 2010 midterm elections combined to create a gerrymandering perfect storm, and how the Republican Party’s REDMAP program took advantage of those factors to radically reshape our political landscape and insulate republican legislators from electoral consequences in the ensuing decade. If that sounds complicated, it very easily could be, but Slay the Dragon avoids getting too dry by focusing on a few key individuals in the fight against gerrymandering and following them: the attorneys representing a group of Wisconsin voters in federal litigation challenging the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering, and Katie Fahey, one of the leaders of Voters Not Politicians, a group of everyday citizen-activists aiming to establish an independent redistricting commission in Michigan. Full disclosure: at my day job, I work as a voting rights lawyer at Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan legal organization that works on democracy reform issues. My colleagues Paul, Gerry, Annabelle, and Ruth (along with Ruth’s husband Nick) appear in the film and were part of the legal team representing the Wisconsin plaintiffs. They also currently represent Voters Not Politicians in federal litigation defending Michigan’s new independent redistricting commission. I’m writing this review in my personal capacity as a moviegoer, but I work on these issues in a professional capacity every day, and these cases (and these people!) are very close to my heart. Political documentaries can sometimes struggle to put a human face on the issues on which they’re focused--particularly when the subject matter is something as abstract as the allocation of political power and representation in America. But Goodman and Durrance effectively show that gerrymandering isn’t just some esoteric political machination: the way that maps are drawn has a concrete impact on people’s lives. Disastrous water management policies that led to the Flint water crisis in Michigan. The destruction of public sector unions in Wisconsin. Implementation of racially discriminatory voter ID in North Carolina. All three were extraordinarily unpopular policies that were met with enormous public protest that was ultimately ignored. The politicians who purported to represent these outraged citizens didn’t need to respond; because their districts had been drawn to protect them from electoral challenges, they no longer had to react to the needs of their constituents. Slay the Dragon follows the ups and downs of both the partisan gerrymandering litigation in Wisconsin and the Michigan ballot initiative campaign without overly dramatizing. By situating viewers in the living rooms and on the sidewalks where these efforts took place, it places them squarely in the action, capturing the spirit of these movements and the genuine frustration that has characterized politics over the past decade. The film ties these abstract structural issues of power and representation to the concrete harms that people face in their everyday lives and shows how those same people--not just lawyers and journalists and academics, but everyday citizen activists--can mobilize to rewrite the political rules. Slay the Dragon isn’t just an informative political and historical accounting of one of democracy’s most pernicious defects; it’s a guidebook on how to fight back against gerrymandering and create a more responsive government. It should be required viewing for anyone in America who cares about structural change and the health of our democracy.