Grassroots activists fight political entrenchment in this inspiring documentary.
We’re living in a year ending in 0, which means that legislators get the opportunity to redraw congressional districts through a political tool known as gerrymandering. Colloquially, this kind of redistricting comes in the form of another word: redlining. Slay the Dragon, a new documentary by PBS veterans Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman, arrives to warn us that our lives (and our democratic voices) are teetering on a dangerously thin red line.
Durrance and Goodman define gerrymandering as the organizing of districts by how they vote. Legislators do this through two methods: “Packing” refers to the condensing of like voters into small, homogenous groups that are overwhelmed by an outside majority. The other method, “Cracking” occurs when districts are formed to create an intentional minority vote within a larger voting block.
Quite convincingly, Durrance and Goodman argue that, though this political tool has historically been used by both sides to prevent political permanence, gerrymandering more often leads to legislators picking the voters, rather than vice versa. Nowadays, it’s a tool that, much like voter suppression, has worked to slowly but surely strangle any sense of democracy in American government.
But Slay the Dragon gives us knights in shining armour to protect us. The film focuses on Michigan anti-gerrymandering coalition Voters for Politicians (VFP) as they battle their way to the state Supreme Court to end red-lining in their state. Led by the perseverant Katie Fahey, VFP is an example of the kind of growing “grassroots opposition” that they see sweeping the nation.
Though Durrance and Goodman won’t call this what it is — populism. That would link them too much with radical liberal politics, or, worse, the Republican Party, whom they see as solely responsible for the current wave of disenfranchisement. Durrance and Goodman hold that after seeing the “blue tide” of 2008 and their dwindling membership, the GOP had a crisis of progeny and began using gerrymandering to establish a more permanent political dominance. What’s worse, this heisting of the American electorate only cost them $30 million dollars.
The trouble is, this is difficult to make thrilling for 1h45min. Durrance and Goodman succeed when they need to at the beginning of the film, when they introduce the problems of gerrymandering. But as the documentary goes on, the storytelling feels less important than one-note politicking. There isn’t a sense of momentum, even as VFP’s moment begins to build up steam. Each new “case” hits the same note each time, which makes Slay the Dragon feel a bit repetitive once we know the score of how Republican gerrymandering operates.
As directors of primarily television documentaries, they are clearly skilled at compacting important information into entertaining but educational bits. But I can’t help but wonder why Slay the Dragon wasn’t also a shorter television special.
At least the filmmakers did their research, and the documentary comes across as a useful piece of political journalism. Information comes from credible sources on both sides of the political debate. Though told from an obviously liberal-leaning perspective, Durrance and Goodman show Republicans to be shrewd politicians. All too often, documentaries like these do audiences a disservice by portraying conservatives as buffoons whose power comes from happenstance or pure evil. Slay the Dragon wants you to know that gerrymandering is a politically discussed and devised decision. And it’s perfectly legal.
But what our knights in shining armor fail to realize is that this particular dragon is a hydra; gerrymandering is just one head of this political beast.
The most revelatory idea Slay the Dragon presents is that cartography is ongoing and political. Lines are drawn and redrawn intentionally. And now, with the privatization of the gerrymandering process, people who don’t even live in the areas being affected are drawing the maps. This. Has. Never. Gone. Well.
But what our knights in shining armor fail to realize is that this particular dragon is a hydra; gerrymandering is just one head of this political beast. Gerrymandering alone did not create the water crises in Michigan, South Carolina, Kentucky, and within the Navajo Nation, for instance. It was part of a multi-headed, nonpartisan assault on the oppressed working classes, which includes systemic neglect, mass incarceration, and debt. It’s impossible to slay the hydra without placing the pieces in the context of the beast.
Education is an important part of the struggle, and Slay the Dragon contributes greatly by outlining the problems with gerrymandering for the general public. Cataracted by a typical liberal golden age nostalgia for a time in which Democrats were in power and did, you know, the “good gerrymandering,” it doesn’t deliver the urgency that Voters for Politicians says is needed to fight the problem.
The maps are being redrawn this year. Slay the Dragon doesn’t present much of what 2020 will look like, but it gets its essential message across: alone, we have no say. Together, we can slay.
Slay the Dragon is available on VOD and cable; check the film’s website to learn more.