‘Slay the Dragon’ Film Review: Timely Doc Takes Hard Look at Political Corruption

This blistering examination of Republican redistricting and voter suppression is essential election-year viewing

Slay the Dragon
"Slay the Dragon"/Magnolia Pictures

This is, inarguably, a challenging moment for the movie industry. But the shift to home viewing may actually benefit smaller films that deserve wider audiences. This week’s most notable example is “Slay the Dragon,” a documentary that should be seen by every American of voting age.

Filmmakers Chris Durrance (“Frontline”) and Barak Goodman (“Scottsboro: An American Tragedy”) stick closely to a traditional nonfiction format, beginning with a theme-setting opening quote. And what a quote it is:

“Democracy never lasts long.
It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.
There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
-John Adams, 1814

The movie focuses primarily on one particular form of self-destruction: political gerrymandering. But for those who don’t feel up to facing more bad news, there is some hope here in the form of citizen activists doing all they can to disprove Adams’ observation.

Gerrymandering may not sound like the most scintillating topic, but Durrance and Goodman make a strong case for it being a life-altering one. This is the story, above all, of the increasingly partisan direction of our nation, and the dire consequences that have followed. It’s a tale of secret agendas, savvy manipulation, and flat-out immorality, facing off against a paralyzed media, uninformed public, and outmatched opposition.

The film begins in Flint, Michigan, which in 2014 experienced what is described as “one of the worst public health crises in American history.” Even those watching the movie during the single worst health crisis in American history may be surprised that the Flint water disaster — and others to follow — had its roots “in some crooked lines drawn on a map.”

Gerrymandering goes all the way back to 1812 (thanks to Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry) but in recent decades, Republicans have perfected the practice to gain control of once-balanced districts. In turn, they have decisively reshaped local, state, and national affairs.

Talking heads from both parties go on to explain the historical use and contemporary consequences of gerrymandering, which is the redrawing of district lines to achieve a starkly partisan outcome.

We hear from political consultants, journalists, politicians and lobbyists. We learn about professional gerrymanderers like the late Tom Hofeller, who was paid millions by the Republican National Committee to strengthen the party’s contemporary power. (His redrawn map of North Carolina helped turn the state House from a 7-6 Democratic advantage to a 10-3 Republican rout.)

We see, too, how each aggressively configured map overrides voters, as the lines squiggle around blue districts and swoop to include red ones. Governor Scott Walker, for example, redefined Wisconsin as though he had swept into office via popular mandate rather than a Hofeller-designed map.

And, of course, as go the states, so goes the nation. Republican-led legislatures, to begin with, are far more likely to pass restrictive laws that target voters of color in particular. Why does this matter? Well, new voter ID laws prevented approximately 45,000 people from voting in Wisconsin. For those counting, Donald Trump won Wisconsin by about 23,000 votes.

The filmmakers also follow a few high-profile efforts to push back against this anti-democratic manipulation. Among these is novice activist Katie Fahey, a recent college grad and independent voter. She felt moved to take some kind of action in 2016, in the face of the country’s increased polarization. Like countless others, she turned to Facebook. A single message led to a small community town hall meeting, which grew to a ballot initiative, which — well, if you don’t remember what happened, you’ll have to see for yourself.

But here’s a spoiler, of sorts. The film is structured so we come away with two competing. and yet complementary, impressions. First, that our political system has become infected with a rampant and deadly corruption that has spread out of control. And second, that there is a communal cure.

Gerry Hebert, senior director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, best expresses the antidote to John Adams’ prescient forecast. As he tells a group of volunteers, “There are a few times in your life when you say, ‘I could have really made a difference. And did I have the courage to do it?’”

Goodman and Durrance did. Many of their subjects did. Spend a couple of hours during this essential election year watching their movie, and you’ll be on your way, too.