At its best, politics is stressful. At its worst, it’s a mind-boggling maze of rules and red tape. And, as we get older, the messiness of our current bureaucracy becomes increasingly obvious, revealing a system that is much more complicated than Schoolhouse Rock! makes it out to be. The power we hold as voters is daunting to most, but to a select few, it’s a threat to their livelihood. Politicians are meant to be held accountable by the public; any AP US History student could tell you that.
Enter the convenient practice of gerrymandering — a district drawing technique that takes away the threat of public opinion. Both political parties are guilty of dividing voting districts in a way that ensures them seats in state legislatures and, though a little bit of innocent gerrymandering might be considered part of the rat race of the government, such is not the way of politics. If your hands aren’t dirty and your inbox is clear of incriminating emails, you’re not doing it right. But what happens when citizens are fed up with the system? Is there capacity for change? The newest documentary from Magnolia Pictures, “Slay the Dragon,” answers these questions with a captivating story about those working to fight the corruption rampant in our governing bodies.
Before considering the political connotations of “Slay the Dragon,” however, it’s important to note the actual storytelling ability of a documentary like this one. Often, these films toe the line between informative and boring, intriguing and emotional. Most run the risk of losing their audience’s attention, especially in these streaming-heavy days of quarantine. But “Slay the Dragon” weaves a fantastical tale about gerrymandering beginning with impressive visuals and graphics that highlight the strange nature of strategic redistricting.
As the opening credits roll, “Slay the Dragon” forces its audiences to consider what it actually means to “re-district” with an animated line carving its way through a city. The image establishes the concept of gerrymandering as something concrete, setting up the intimate relationship between an audience and a major character of the film. As the story progresses, the visuals become ever more important in showing the increasingly questionable practice of gerrymandering. At one point, watching “Slay the Dragon” was similar to trying to find the constellations — the audience stares at indiscernible, odd shapes that take on no meaning until a detailed drawing is put over it. But the effect remained. “Slay the Dragon” was able to emphasize the absurdity of gerrymandering with a few well-placed examples of specific districts.
Beyond the graphics, “Slay the Dragon” also provided an excellent story. There were many beginnings to this story — 2016, when Katie Fahey started her quest against gerrymandering; 2010, when Project REDMAP began flipping state legislatures; even 2020, the first census year since many of these anti-gerrymandering laws were put into place. However you decide to define the start, it’s obvious what “Slay the Dragon” is about: the rise and hopefully coming fall of gerrymandering in the United States.
But is it really that simple? In an age of political unrest, “Slay the Dragon” provides a hopeful message for those of us just about to come of age in this important election year. In a speech after the anti-gerrymandering proposal was passed in Michigan, Katie Fahey is seen telling her campaign team how important every one of their actions is. The underlying message that every action, every vote is essential to the success of democracy is one that we could all stand to remember, regardless of what year it is.
The eye-opening moments of a documentary should be few and far between — a good documentary should make its audience reflect and question what’s presented to them. The immediate nature of an “eye-opening” moment is the opposite of conversation-sparking. “Slay the Dragon” understands this and, though it is very left-leaning, it still manages to present its audiences with a strong and informative message about gerrymandering. It highlights the importance of every citizen’s participation in democracy, making it one of the better documentaries to watch.