"Slay the Dragon"
Release Date: April 10, 2020
Running Time: 101 minutes
We all know Republicans do two things much better than Democrats to hold onto power: fight dirty and play the long game. That much was evident on April 6, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided 5-4 to block efforts by Wisconsin Democrats to extend absentee voting in the state’s April 7 presidential primary election. The five conservatives judges on the U.S. Supreme Court not only saw fit to force Wisconsinites to stand in long lines to vote during the coronavirus pandemic but was accused of “brazenly suppressing thousands of voters in Wisconsin” by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI2). On the line: a Wisconsin Supreme Court election for one of the five seats currently held by conservatives (liberals hold the other two seats). Which brings us to directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance’s Slay the Dragon, most likely one of the year’s most important documentaries and at least one that could potentially affect change by the outrage it will engender among those upset by the direction the country is heading in. A documentary about partisan gerrymandering, the clear and incisive Slay the Dragon offers a striking analysis of the dangerous voter suppression games Republicans have played in states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin since losing the 2008 general election to Barack Obama. “There’s always that moment, right, whenever there’s a big lost for a party, there’s this moment of panic,” Republican strategist Chris Jankowski tells Goodman and Durrance. “I think those of us that have been around a little bit can see past the panic but still have the fundamental strategic question, What are we going to do? How do we get back? And I think that part of that turned out to be our REDMAP Project.” Republican wunderkind Jankowski,who takes a proverbial victory lap in Slay the Dragon, was the mastermind behindthe Republican State Leadership Committee’s REDMAP, a “redistricting majority project” that successfully led to conservatives winning multiple gubernatorial and state legislaturesin the census year of 2010. This gave the conservatives absolute control to redraw electoral districts in their favor. “The reason that you gerrymander is to make it harder for your opponent’s vote to count, notes Mother Jones journalist Ari Berman. While Slay the Dragon features interviews with Republicans such as Jankowski and Michigan redistricting strategist Robert LaBrant, Goodman and Durrance show as much partisanship as the Republican did in the two states the documentary focuses on, Michigan and Wisconsin. (Slay the Dragon briefly notes but shows zero concern about recent gerrymandering campaigns by Democrats.) The goal of Slay the Dragon to is show how the Republicans have engaged in a nationwide campaign of voter suppression to combat a shift in the country’s demographics. When it comes to Michigan, Goodman and Durrance draw a straight line to Republicans assuming control of the state in 2010, the passing of the Emergency Manager Law, which allowed GOP lawmakers to override local governments, and the ensuring Flint watercrisis. “They took control to take control away. If that meant taking democracy away, they decided that that would be the route they take,” says Rev. Charles Williams II ofthe National Action Network. Wisconsin comes under scrutiny because of the 2010 Wisconsin gubernatorial election victory of Scott Walker, the introduction of Act 10, which removed collective bargaining for the public sector, and the redrawing of electoraldistricts in secret. The documentary also highlights the insidiousefforts of the conservative lobby group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to put forth copycat bills in many Republican-controlled states, including voter identification lawsthat are intended to reduce participationby minorities, the poor, and the disabled. “If you wonder why you see representatives that are doing things that their constituents don’t want, why are laws being passed that don’t seem to reflect the wishes of the public, gerrymandering is a big part of the explanation,”saysthen-University of Chicago and current Harvard Law Schoollaw professor Nick Stephanopoulos. An experton election law and constitutional law, Stephanopoulos was involved in the lawsuit Wisconsin Democrats appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 seeking to overturn Republican-gerrymanderedelectoral districts. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, and in 2019 it decided 5-4 that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the conservative majority. This now means state legislators with uncontested level of control could redraw electoral districts as they see fit after the 2020 census. Slay the Dragon offers hope in the form of Voters Not Politicians (VNP) and the nonprofit’s anti-gerrymandering grassroots ballot initiative in Michigan. The documentary offers thorough details on how the VNP—led by Katie Fahey—secured enough signatures, and overcame numerous legal hurdles, to ensure its redistricting reform initiative not just made the ballot but ultimately was passed by Michigan voters in 2018. Slay the Dragon makes it clear that too much is at stake this November to sit on the sidelines, and therefore serves as a rallying cry for individual and group efforts to combat potential partisan gerrymandering before and during the next round of electoral districting. What’s the alternative? As attorney Paul W. Smith argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2017 when representing a group of 12 voters in the State of Wisconsin: “If you let this go, in 2020, you’re going to have a festival of copycat gerrymandering the likes of which this country has never seen. The country is going to lose faith in democracy big time.”
Note: The Austin Film Society is presenting virtual screenings of Slay the Dragon through April 23 at https://slaythedragon.vhx.tv/products/slay-the-dragon-for-austin-film-society
Posted: April 13, 2020