The 2020 Census is upon us, and its results will determine how much representation each district will get in the House of Representatives. But for decades there have been various attempts to cheat the system in a trick called gerrymandering, wherein voting districts are redrawn to effectively divide certain blocs and thus reduce their collective representative power in Congress.
“Slay the Dragon,” from documentarians Barak Goodman (“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation”) and Chris Durrance (“Gerald R. Ford: A Test of Character”), follows citizen activists who are fighting to hold politicians accountable for trying to effectively draw the electoral map in their own favor.
“There is no way to justify the craziness of some of those districts other than malicious partisan intentions,” said Goodman. “There is no natural reason to be drawing districts that are one street wide or cut between somebody’s backyard.”
To illustrate—literally—the absurdity of the districts they highlight in the film, Goodman and Durrance employed graphics companies to draw lines around those heavily gerrymandered voting districts, with the results appearing in the likeness of many creatures, including, say, a dragon.
“We knew we had to lean heavily on graphics and animation in this film [to explain] what gerrymandering is and how it works,” Goodman said. “And we knew maps would be the heart of that because that’s what redistricting is all about.”
“We shot a couple of scenes on the ground in various states to illustrate the absurdities [and to show] the real-world impact of the maps,” said Durrance, adding that there is even one district line in North Carolina that splits the dorm of an African American university in half—further illustrating that gerrymandering unfairly targets minority voting blocs.
Durrance said that politicians can draw their own districts, with exacting accuracy, thanks to harvesting the data provided thanks to information gleaned from the 2010 Census. The amount of data that can be harvested from this year’s census compared to 2010’s will be exponential, the filmmakers believe.
“The advance in the information that people had about voters—and the advance in computer power—between 2000 and 2010 was tremendous,” Durrance said. “And 2010 to 2020 will be another step in terms of the data that the politicians have on their voters.
“They can pick with surgical precision how to stay in power.”
“Slay the Dragon” focuses primarily on efforts to push back gerrymandering in Wisconsin, Colorado and Michigan. Among the doc’s heroes is activist Katie Fahey, who takes on partisan redistricting in her home state of Michigan. She founded an organization called Voters Not Politicians and has gone on to be a primary figure in citizen angst directed at gerrymandering.
“Katie was telling us the other day that in Michigan, Democrats won by 7 points in the last election and got the congressional delegation to parity, 7 to 7—on a 7-point victory,” Durrance said. “The numbers just don’t lie. And I think what everyone wants is a level playing field. Then argue. Then dispute policies and issues. But don’t start off with a playing field that is tilted so heavily in one direction.”
“Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin was an egregious gerrymanderer,” added Goodman of the notorious anti-union former governor of the Badger State. “Now that Gov. Walker is out of power, he’s leading what the Republicans call their ‘anti-gerrymandering force’ [but] it’s an effort to keep the lines as they are. It’s utter hypocrisy.”
Thus, the politicians are either cynically playing a game they know is rigged or, less credibly, are ignorant of its end results on the voters. The solution, the filmmakers believe, is citizen-led redistricting rather than hoping for a government solution.
“People can go in front of their politicians and say ‘we won’t let you redraw these lines; we will be watching you, we’re going to vote on this,’” Goodman said, adding that in addition to voting out gerrymandering advocates, other methods include altering state constitutions. “There are various levels [the people] can pull,” he said. “They have to stay engaged, and that’s our whole message.”
Durrance concurs, saying that pushing back on gerrymandering is not simply an “academic exercise,” but rather has downstream effects on voters, Congress and even state legislatures. The 2018 midterms may well have added more Democrats in Congress, however, redistricting hasn’t given them more of a power balance versus the Republicans. Effectively, the 2010s were the era of former Speaker Paul D. Ryan, whose ascent and tenure was enabled due to the tea party wave of the previous decade.
“If the 2012 election had had the consequences in terms of seats that it should have, Paul Ryan would have been a one-term speaker, and Mark Meadows wouldn’t be ruling the roost for eight years,” Durrance added of the North Carolina congressman who has become President Trump’s latest chief of staff. “These people would [still] have had their moment, but it would have been a moment.”
“Slay the Dragon” was supposed to open in March, but due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has closed movie theaters worldwide, the film will be debuting online on Friday, allowing it to reach a greater audience.
“With the erosion of newspapers, [documentaries] have become a new way for people to get in-depth stories,” Goodman said. “But with that comes competition at the box office. It’s a big dog-eat-dog world out there [but] it’s a super encouraging time to be making documentary films.”
The filmmakers say that following the census and redrawing of many congressional districts, they will remain vigilant. They are also hopeful as district maps in Pennsylvania and North Carolina have already been redrawn. Even more conservatives states such as Utah and Oklahmore are beginning to examine the problem more extensively.
“If nothing else, people are watching, and it becomes much harder to do these backroom shenanigans when people are watching you,” Goodman said.
“Slay the Dragon” will debut on video on demand Friday.