“Slay the Dragon” begins with a subject that might seem counterintuitive for a documentary on gerrymandering: the Flint, Mich., water crisis. The movie lays out a timeline of state legislative actions that led to the decision that contaminated the city’s water supply. It persuasively argues that the crisis never would have happened without gerrymandering, which had allowed legislators to shield themselves from voters’ wrath.
Connecting the dots between Flint and gerrymandering isn’t new; that case has been made elsewhere by the journalist David Daley, a consultant on the documentary and the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” For anyone who has read a book on gerrymandering or followed the legal fights over the matter, “Slay the Dragon” won’t necessarily offer much that is new. (The Supreme Court ruled last June that federal courts had no power to rectify partisan gerrymanders, a process in which state legislative majorities redraw voting maps to help their political side ensure control.)
But the film, directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance, does a skillful job of distilling a complicated history. It recounts a Republican campaign to flip statehouses in the all-important election of 2010, a census year after which legislators could redraw boundaries. It tags along with Katie Fahey, a grass-roots activist, as she pushes for a ballot measure in Michigan that, in 2018, gave redistricting authority to an independent commission. And it dissects the extreme nature of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin — graphics show how sophisticated, data-driven mapmaking guaranteed that, even in the event of a Democratic landslide, Republicans would maintain power in the State Assembly — and its policy consequences.
One architect of the gerrymanders is quite forthright about his accomplishments. Chris Jankowski, a Republican strategist whose redistricting program was featured in Daley’s book, coolly discusses the cost-effectiveness of his plan to win statehouses in 2010, which had the potential to lock in Republican control in the House of Representatives for a decade. (It took the 2018 Democratic national landslide — unmentioned here — to counteract that.)
Dale Schultz, a Republican and former state senator in Wisconsin, speaks out about the practice even though it benefited his party. He recalls his shock over the swiftness of Gov. Scott Walker’s push to weaken public-sector unions after winning office in 2010 (he remembers saying, “people kill each other’s dogs over this kind of stuff”) and, later, after seeing the 2012 election results, his surprise at how many assembly seats Republicans were able to retain.
And then there is Robert LaBrant, a Republican redistricting strategist in Michigan who says he doesn’t think surplus votes for Democrats in urban districts are a direct result of Republican gerrymandering. “It’s just a fact of life,” he says. Then the movie shows a May 2011 email in which he wrote, “We needed for legal and PR purposes a good looking map that did not look like an obvious gerrymander.”
The goals of “Slay the Dragon” are more activist than cinematic; the documentary ends with an exhortation for viewers to visit a website to learn how to take action. And there are only a few passages in which it has the sort of present-tense exhilaration that can come from watching events unfold, as when it embeds in 2018 with some of the plaintiff’s team in Gill v. Whitford, as they wait — and wait — for the Supreme Court’s ruling.
But “Slay the Dragon” is not short on outrage, and just because some of this material is not new doesn’t mean it’s not worth repeating.
Slay the Dragon