Note: This review, originally written in May 2019 has been reposted in Jan 2020 for the screening of the Slay the Dragon documentary at the NYC CineMatters Social Justice Film Festival. Please pardon the dated TV references, but the gerrymandering issue is more urgent than ever as we approach the 2020 elections.
Game of Thrones is ending, and now where will we hide from our disillusionment and despair? Hell, even that doesn’t provide the escapism it promised; we are confronted with a Starbucks cup in the Land of Westeros. It’s not just the crass contemporary brand in our escapist fantasy television that offends. Don’t forget that Starbucks owner Howard Schultz was campaigning for president just a few weeks ago, and the prospect of our upcoming presidential race only reminds us of our collective disgust. That Starbucks cup was like a cruel joke wrapped in a bad dream plopped in some dragon dung. What are we supposed to do with all our alienation and desolation? Well, if watching Jon Snow learn to ride a dragon in Game of Thrones didn’t give you quite the lift you wanted, Helen Highly Suggests you try watching Slay the Dragon, directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance – an earth-shaking documentary that follows a brutal civil war for the prize of Democracy in the land of the United States of America. It’s a movie about gerrymandering, and it doesn’t matter how unappealing the word sounds or how nerdy it seems, it’s THE most important thing to watch right now on any screen. (And really, if you can handle a name like Hizdahr zo Loraq, then you can handle the complexities of gerrymandering.)
If you feel you have been abandoned by your belief in democracy, your sense of justice, your morality, then this is the movie for you. If you feel hopeless and helpless in the face of political power that seems beyond your control, this movie is for you. If the dragon you have is not the dragon you want — whether you aim to slay it or to ride it, this movie might make your fire-breathing wishes come true. But it’s not just big-wing-span enthusiasm on film; it’s a highly timely Call to Action. Strained dragon metaphors aside, and regardless of your party affiliation, this movie is the most significant and vital political film of the year, and perhaps the most empowering. Produced by Participant Media and premiering at Tribeca Film Festival 2019, Slay the Dragon tells the story of a fight for the soul of our country that is real and urgently relevant.
About this Dragon:
Gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing electoral maps to serve the party in power, has been around for centuries. It often results in districts that are bizarrely shaped, and this film points to one famous case in which critics said the redrawn district resembled a mythical dragon. So, that’s how we got this gerrymandered dragon. Going further, the film looks at how gerrymandering has been used in the past and what’s so different and dangerous about it now, in our hyper-partisan times. It shows how a secret gerrymandering initiative launched 10 years ago used newly unregulated Dark Money and newly available high-tech analytics that produced Big Data demographics to enact “the most audacious political heist in modern times” – an unprecedented extreme in gerrymandering that effectively negated the will of the majority of voters across the country.
Now we have this beast of a dragon that is threatening American democratic principles by overpowering the will of the people. Late-night comedian Seth Meyers pointed to a recently gerrymandered district in North Carolina and asked, “What do you see in this shape? I don’t know, it’s either a dragon or 300 years of institutional racism.” The real problem, however, is that the “old gerrymandering” was bad, but starting in 2010, the “new gerrymandering” has jumped into the steroid era.
Voters should choose politicians, not the other way around. — Katie Fahey
Goodman and Durrance offer a staggeringly thorough investigation into the entrenched and increasingly perilous problem of “dirty redistricting,” which enables politicians to ignore the decisions of the people they govern. Slay the Dragon gives some harrowing examples of what happens when legislators are no longer accountable to the people. It explains how gerrymandering is directly connected to real-life issues such as: the much-publicized and still unresolved water crisis in Flint, Michigan; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s removal of collective bargaining for public employees; newly extreme voter-ID laws intended to disenfranchise targeted groups; and North Carolina’s bathroom bill.
Goodman says, “I felt very strongly about connecting the dots and showing that gerrymandering is not just some abstract thing that dilutes your vote, but how the policies that are passed in these states are so out of step with the people in these states. If you’re a voter, it’s not just a sense that your vote doesn’t count. It’s actual things that affect your everyday life, whether it’s environmental or a union issue or whatever. It’s real-life stuff. It’s not abstract.”
The film explains why, to so many of us, our democratic representation doesn’t feel representative, at both the state and federal level. Interwoven into those bleak realities, the film also follows ordinary people as they speak up and organize and fight to make their votes matter in a system that has been rigged against them by what can fairly be called one of the greatest political manipulations in American history.
We can pretty reliably count on John Oliver at HBO’s Last Week Tonight to address our nation’s most serious and most complicated issues with wonderfully instructive and hilarious style. See his treatment of gerrymandering, below, where he says, among other things, “Everything about gerrymandering is stupid and wrong.”
Although not as comedic as John Oliver, this documentary wastes no time with unconstructive outrage. While it efficiently functions as a lesson about the recent history of American politics and its dark underbelly, the film is most crucially about activism — why it matters and how it works. It speaks about what is happening in our country right now, last week, next month – who is doing what, and where, and why, and how it’s all affecting you, whether you realize it or not (and how you can participate in ways that will make you less helpless and hopeless). But its aim is not to proselytize; its aim is to educate and motivate – now, before 2020.
The filmmakers have faith that once regular people understand the terrible truths that lie behind the boring word “gerrymander,” those disturbing realities will galvanize them to join with their neighbors and take back the reigns of democracy that has run amok. In fact, the film shows us some daring individuals and grassroots organizations who have already done just that, with amazing results.
With 2020 bringing both elections and another census that will further shape how voting districts are drawn, Goodman and Durance are hoping their film will make people aware of the urgency of the current gerrymandering problem and embolden them to take action.
It is worth mentioning that one of the film’s directors, Barak Goodman, also had another film premiere at TFF this year – Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation. (Click here to read IndieNYC’s review of that film.) When I interviewed the filmmakers of Slay the Dragon, Goodman made an interesting point about his relationship to the two films:
“I feel there’s a lot in common between the two. In both cases, the story is about ordinary people, especially young people who have a different vision of the world, and how they’re taking that into their own hands and making change. In that respect, I find both films totally inspiring, and I’ve immensely enjoyed working on both of them. For old fogies like me, to see that kind of thing – to see how young people can do so much just with passion and vision… it’s inspiring. Working on these films has renewed my faith in America. I see that democracy is still very much alive. And that’s what I wanted to communicate in both documentaries.”
Shaken by the book Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, written by veteran journalist David Daley, Barak Goodman initially set out to make a film that would shine a spotlight on the enormous dangers of this little-understood problem.
“It was a complete revelation,” says Goodman of Daley’s book. “I had heard of gerrymandering, of course, but like a lot of us, I didn’t completely understand it. And I certainly didn’t understand the extent to which it had been used as a partisan political weapon in the last eight years, and the threat it posed to some of the bedrock principles of democracy.”
Goodman adds, “I think most Americans – Republicans and Democrats – however much we might disagree with each other on other issues, feel that every person’s vote should count equally and that everyone should have the opportunity to vote.”
Goodman called Daley to ask if the film rights were available for the book and if the author would be interested in participating as a consultant on the project. Happily, the answer to both questions was yes. Goodman then approached frequent collaborator Chris Durrance about co-directing the film.
Durrance was equally shocked by the revelations in the book. It reminded him of his – and many other observers’ – confusion after the 2012 national elections. That year, President Barak Obama won reelection comfortably and Democratic House candidates received 1.4 million more votes than their Republican opponents nationwide, yet Republicans came out of the election with a 234-201 majority in the House. “I remember seeing the gulf between the number of votes and the number of seats they won,” he says. “Some people said it was a matter of geography. I bought that for a long time. But after reading David Haley’s book, it was brought home to me that no, this was orchestrated. What happened was by design.”
As they started trying to explain the complexities of the situation in ways that would translate dramatically to the screen, Durrance says he quickly realized that the film would be far more compelling and relevant if it moved beyond the historical perspective of the book and focused on the people who are leading the fight against gerrymandering today.
“The film really clicked into gear when we came across Katie Fahey, who was running what was then a fledgling online group of political neophytes who had decided to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” says Durrance. “That’s when we realized this was a film that could live in the present, but a present informed by what had happened in the recent past.”
Fahey, a 20-something with no political experience, is the founder of Voters Not Politicians, a grassroots organization dedicated to wresting redistricting control in Michigan away from political parties and putting it into the hands of a citizens’ commission comprised of people from across the ideological spectrum. The group’s argument that voters should choose politicians, not the other way around, struck a chord with Michigan voters, and with an extraordinary door-to-door effort, despite all the big-money opposing forces, the group managed to get the gerrymandering Initiative Proposal 2 on the 2018 midterm ballot. The film also focuses on similar initiatives in Wisconsin and North Carolina.
The story of the Proposal 2 campaign was so gripping that the filmmakers decided to hold off on completing the film until the fate of the initiative was decided in the November 2018 elections. The proposal passed. But the story didn’t end there.
There is a new term for political neophytes to learn: “weaponized lame-duck legislation.” The Powers That Be do not release their power easily, even after losing an election. It gets more complicated from here, but I will say that the story continues in ongoing court battles and in different states across the country. (In early May, the Supreme Court ruled on Ohio’s Congressional map, and new actions are being taken almost weekly, around the country.) In fact, after the documentary’s final scene of Fahey’s group celebrating their win and drinking champagne, the filmmakers felt the need to place a screen graphic at the end of the film to update viewers. It reads:
WITH A ‘BLUE WAVE,’ DEMOCRATS
RECAPTURED CONGRESS IN 2018.
BUT IN NORTH CAROLINA, MICHIGAN,
AND WISCONSIN THE GERRYMANDERS HELD.
IN ALL THREE STATES, LEGISLATURES QUICKLY
MOVED TO PASS NEW VOTER SUPPRESSION LAWS AND
STRIP INCOMING DEMOCRATIC GOVERNORS OF POWER.
Honestly, when I saw that final graphic, my heart fell. It put me back into the defeatist “even when you win, you lose,” mindset that has felt so overwhelming in recent years. After Goodman spoke so enthusiastically about how both his new documentaries shared a spirit of optimism about democracy, I asked him a hard question. I asked, “Do you say you believe that democracy is alive and well because it’s the thing you want to believe and that you hope can and will be true, if people keep trying despite the setbacks, or do you honestly believe that democracy is alive and well in America – based on your real experiences and what you have seen happen over the past few years? Is functional democracy a wish or reality?”
He did not pause before he answered, emphatically, “The latter. I believe it. I’ve seen it.” He is here to testify. But he adds, “People have to fight for their democracy. They have to get upset and they have to get mad and really make it clear to politicians that they will not stand for it. That’s what happened in Michigan. It’s what is going to happen everywhere.” And Fahey stepped in to add to that answer:
“I spent two years of my life, every single day, seeing what democracy can be, seeing strangers join together and decide to stand up for doing what was right over what was easy – take democracy into their own hands and talk to their neighbors about how to make a better future. And what we did… we changed the course of history. There may be setbacks but there is no turning back. The tide is turning. Change is happening.
“And what we’re doing now is… we had so many people reach out to us after hearing about our story on the national news and say that they want to challenge gerrymandering in their states, so now I’m working on creating lessons based on what we did and organizing to help other people do it for themselves too.”
Okay then. This is testimony from people on the front lines of the fight. Helen Highly Persuaded: I will give hope a chance.
This is not an ordinary archive-on-film documentary; it’s not just a history lesson, a story about ideas, or something you put on your to-watch list; it’s a breathing thing, with a life force and a will for justice and hope to offer, but it needs daylight and care to stay alive. The fight is happening right now. The hope the film holds is not just an offer; it’s a plea. I am pleading with you; let’s not give up on everything quite yet. Watch this movie first.
(Slay the Dragon is set to be released later this year, but keep an eye out for updates.)
It’s hard to keep up with all the latest gerrymandering court rulings and legal battles around the country, but I will post one here from May 13th, regarding the Michigan case. Click to read: “Republican lawmakers ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block a U.S. District Court order to redraw Michigan districts, to prevent ‘legislative gridlock’.” Despite Katie’s Prop 2 legislative win, the battle rages on. See twitter comments below that provide a detailed account of how this case came to this place and what the expected outcome is:
Re Michigan court case mentioned above: Tweets re status of the case, running from top to bottom, with most recent at the bottom.