While the film retreads truths found in other projects on the subject, it offers a newfound hope that other, similar docs lacked.
In any discussion of gerrymandering, the practice of politicians artfully redesigning legislative districts to create leverage, jokes are always made about the contorted shapes these dividing lines make on a map. The new documentary Slay the Dragon’s title refers to one such shape, chimera-like in description and as insurmountable as any beast from myth. But while the film retreads truths found in other projects on the subject, it offers a newfound hope that other, similar docs lacked.
From the outset, Slay the Dragon treads the same water as Jeff Reichert’s 2010 film Gerrymandering, outlining the basics of the mass-scale manipulation and how it affects elections and partisanship in America. In that regard, the film feels superfluous. Gerrymandering is not a new or provocative subject to explore on its own, but this documentary proves to be less about the practice in the abstract and more in addressing the purest way to battle it.
The filmmakers frame the issue as the root method through which a great many injustices have come to pass in recent years, and follow multiple paths towards thwarting it in the future. The central path is a group in Michigan fighting to get a measure on the ballot to reform redistricting in the state so that an impartial panel would do the work, and not partisan politicians working with outside consultants working for corporate masters.
The group’s plucky founder Katie Fahey makes for an easy protagonist, all smiles and infectious civics-minded enthusiasm. But as the film intercuts the movement’s uphill battle with just how deep and grotesque the machine has become in recent years, there grows a natural suspense in whether or not they’ll ever see victory.
There’s moments where the film mirrors the aspirational, sports-movie-like tone of Netflix’s Knock Down the House, which chronicled several (unfortunately failed) Democratic primary races alongside one infamously successful one in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s run. But here it’s focused less on individuals and more the larger ideas at play. At times, the film relies too heavily on making the GOP its clear villains, which rings false, considering how Democrats have also relied on gerrymandering, particularly in California.
But when the film gets into the gritty details of the practice, it becomes a lot clearer. Watching Chris Jankowski gleefully explain the modus operandi behind REDMAP or hearing talking heads refer to mapmaker Thomas Hofeller’s insidious perversion of district lines as somehow artistic, it’s obvious that this isn’t simply about red versus blue. Rather, the film focuses on those who want the voice and votes of the people to matter in the political process, and those who don’t.
Luckily, for all the doom and gloom in the doc’s woeful second act, the project leaves the audience with enough motivation from key “wins” to feel like perhaps there’s still a chance to move the country off this depressing course. Given how rough things look outside all our windows, that’s a pleasant thing to behold.