Film Review: Gerrymandering

An important political subject gets sincere but slick treatment.

Gerrymandering is a near-perfect movie for those who have never heard of the term or only have a vague idea what it means. But political junkies and the better-informed will be disappointed by Jeff Reichert’s “Politics 101” treatment. Cable TV awaits.

No doubt director Jeff Reichert means well by presenting the urgent need to change the current tradition of gerrymandering—i.e., politically motivated redistricting. A clever Thomas Pynchon quote about abusing power opens the film, but everything that follows is a by-the-numbers overview with some serious gaps.

During its breezy 77 minutes, Gerrymandering covers the history of the practice, how it is used and abused, and how it benefits both major political parties, Democrats and Republicans. Along the way, we hear from politicians, pundits and reporters, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Howard Dean, Bob Graham, Lani Guiner, Ed Rollins, John Fund and Susan Lerner, and a host of lesser-known personalities. At the end of the film, viewers are encouraged to visit a website in order protest against and/or reform gerrymandering.

While the talking heads make a few interesting insights, the best parts of the film are the on-location examples of how gerrymandering works. New York State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries explains how he and his supporters were floored by a surprise redistricting that excluded Jeffries from his own district, thus making his opponent unbeatable. Thanks to clever maneuvering by the older incumbent, Jeffries never even had a chance to win the contest. Likewise, supporters of Barack Obama helped him gerrymander his way to win an election in Chicago, after failing in a different district the first time.

These anecdotal passages are entertaining and dramatic, though we don’t learn exactly how the politicians were able to manipulate the system so unilaterally. It is also surprising that Reichert focuses on Obama, since the film’s producers, Chris Romano and Dan O’Meara, had been the ones behind the much more positive portrait, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009). Sadly, here Obama looks like any other opportunistic politician (and no one is interviewed from his camp to defend or explain his actions). Democrats and Republicans alike come off as sleazy—but wasn’t it the Republicans in the last decade who more forcefully corroded the system? In this film, Tom Delay appears far more benign—and like any typical politician—than he did in The Big Buy: Tom Delay’s Stolen Congress (2006).

Reichert’s emphasis is curious, even troubling at times. Why should we listen to Ed Rollins, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, chortle about how corrupt the system is when he was once a major part of it? Reichert should have asked much more challenging questions of Rollins, especially since he had him in his sights. Also, Reichert covers the infamous 2003 case of the Texas Democrats’ late-night flight from the state to protest unfair Republican redistricting, but he never clarifies what effect this odd act had on the process—within the state or beyond. We just get the usual punditry ping-pong match, with some calling the Democrats cowards, others calling them heroes.

Even with all its fancy graphics and abundance of interview subjects, Gerrymandering feels incomplete, a rough draft for a better, more in-depth film.