"Slay the Dragon" (PG-13) (Magnolia Pictures)
Score: 2.0 stars (**) out of 4 stars
If you don’t know the definition of "gerrymandering," please do not feel uninformed.
There are quite a few politically astute people who also have no clue what it means.
If you see this new documentary from co-directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman ("Woodstock"), you’ll walk away not only understanding how gerrymandering works, but why it is allegedly so bloody evil and a threat to life as we know it.
What you will not get much of are the details of the practice from the past and its popularity not only among lawmakers of both major U.S. political parties but close to two dozen other countries.
It’s the best half-history lesson you’ll see all year.
Committing the most egregious of all possible documentary sins, Durrance and Goodman take a page from the Michael Moore playbook and cherry-pick their facts while presenting them without a hint of context or modesty. You do have to give the filmmakers credit for one thing — they’re releasing the movie before the 2020 Census starts.
It never hurts to let people know that what they say to census-takers could affect the value of their future votes.
Prior to the 1812 election, then Massachusetts governor — and later James Madison’s vice president — Elbridge Gerry created a law that allowed him to redistrict a section of Boston which would net him a maximum number of favorable votes and keep opposition votes to a bare minimum.
The odd, seemingly random shaping of the district inspired Elkanah Tisdale to adapt a map of the area into a cartoon resembling a salamander and a new portmanteau political term was coined.
Not surprisingly, this practice of vote manipulation (some may say quasi-voter negation) spread across the colonies like wildfire, virtually guaranteeing the party in power free reign in elections. Because of population shifts and changing mindsets of voters, few gerrymandered districts stay the same forever and are regularly redrawn.
What everyone needs to remember, gerrymandering is not the exclusive province of either party — both Democrats and Republicans do it. The secret to successful modern-day gerrymandering comes down to just one thing: being the party in power in a particular state in a year when the census is conducted.
After the midterms in 2010 – when the Democrats lost big in the house and senate – the Republicans gained majorities in many states including Michigan and Wisconsin which is where there the filmmakers dedicate most of their time. It is during these portions where Republicans redraw districts which (in theory) would favor their next presidential candidate — Mitt Romney.
As Romney lost, this didn’t serve the desired narrative so the accent shifted to the 2016 and 2020 candidate Donald Trump. Never once mentioned is the Democratic-controlled Maryland's 3rd District with a new 2010 gerrymandered area which looks like a Jackson Pollack painting covering over half of the state.
In this movie, the salamander cartoon has been appropriated into a cause logo and rechristened as a dragon — hence the title.
Throughout the movie, Durrance and Goodman go back and forth between talking-head interviews with political wonks, former politicians and Katie Fahey, a Michigan woman who started a grass-roots movement to change the gerrymandering laws in her state and maybe others.
Chipper and driven with superb organizing talents, Fahey is relentless in her quest to — not get rid of gerrymandering completely — but rather to take the power away from some people and give it to others.
The "others" would be unelected citizens without any political leanings who would have to either be appointed or elected. The irony and hypocrisy of this short-term non-solution is astounding and would result in the exact same situation down the road.
Like gerrymandered districts, a movie that concentrates on one party exercising its legal right is not only a disservice to people unaware of the law, it taints the truth.
If gerrymandering is ever made illegal across the country, it will have to be done in Congress — the place occupied by all of those lovely people who will never, ever vote against it — or term limits, for that matter.
Those are the real dragons.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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