“I wish we could go back to the time when voters chose their legislators instead of legislators choosing their voters through the redistricting process,” former Democratic NC senator Margaret Dickson says to Zach Galifianakis in “Democracy for Sale.” The short film is part of a larger five-part documentary series, “America Divided,” created by Solly Granatstein, Richard Rowley and Lucian Read, meant to explore real stories around inequality in education, housing, healthcare, labor, criminal justice, and political systems. After finishing their production roles in a larger climate-change documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” Read, Granatstein and Rowley began conceptualizing a new project in 2014 and decided on a series about income inequality.
“Pretty quickly, as we were developing stories and talking to people, it became clear you couldn’t talk about income equality without talking about racial inequity, gender inequity, labor rights, the environment and the way some corporations draw profit from exploiting the environment,” Read tells.
“Democracy for Sale” and the rest of “America Divided” was executive produced by Norman Lear, Shonda Rhimes and Common, who is a correspondent in “The System.” The hip-hop artist returns to his hometown of Chicago to explore/investigate the criminal justice system. Rather than highlight inequality and inequity as singular issues dividing the country, Read says narrowing their focus throughout a broader series helped show how all issues tie together to create inequality.
The next step was finding celebrity correspondents—Zach Galifianakis, Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, Amy Poehler, and others among them. “We wanted to work with people who everybody knows because it makes it easier to access the stories and information,” Read explains. “We really wanted to match the stories and correspondents together in ways that were natural, and they had their own personal experience with.”
“Democracy for Sale” features one of NC’s most famous sons: Zach Galifianakis. Galifianakis grew up in NC as an active citizen. In fact, his uncle, Nick Galifianakis, ran against Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate in 1972. Read also is from Orange County, so covering their homestate was more or less guaranteed.
Throughout the film Galifianakis helps investigate allegations that NC government is powered by special-interests financial backers. It’s a rabbit hole, leading to cuts in education, healthcare and environmental protections; lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations; as well as voter discrimination initiatives and gerrymandering.
Read, who directed the film, and his colleagues sought interviewees who were directly impacted by various issues. Margaret Dickson, a legislator who lost her seat in a nasty campaign and then was drawn out of her district, agreed to go on camera. “The line literally runs down the street in front of her house,” Read says, referring to a moment in the film showing Dickson and Galifianakis walk into the street, stand on each side, and say “hi” from different voter districts.
“Democracy for Sale” goes beyond gerrymandering and delves into voter ID law as well as the controversial HB2 legislations. Also, it zeroes in on the coal ash pollution in Stokes County, former governor Pat McCrory’s ties with Duke Energy, and his “weak” response to the spill in the Dan River.
“If you only understand voter suppression then you only understand a third of the story,” Read explains. “Because voter suppression and gerrymandering and outside money are all active at the same time and reinforce each other. . . . [it shows] how the coziness of politicians and their funders actually plays out in a real person’s life.”
It was never Read’s intention to be partisan in “America Divided,” but more than any other part of the series, “Democracy for Sale” deals with partisan politics. “We tried to talk to Republicans and talk to both sides who are open and honest about what’s happening in the state,” he says. “It’s not about bashing one party or the other; it’s about holding up discussion of things that make the state undemocratic, and make people’s political lives and participation traumatic.”
Though the topics aren’t necessarily light-hearted, the film is narrated by Galifianakis. Thus, there are moments of levity. “He brings his passion about the state,” Read says. “He brings his skepticism about power, but he also can make you laugh and stay engaged in what you’re seeing even more.”
Shortly after filming “Democracy for Sale,” the congressional legislative districts in NC were declared unconstitutional as racially based gerrymandering. NC’s voter ID law was declared unconstitutional, too. Since the election of Gov. Roy Cooper, citizens have hope to see the repeal of HB2.
“It all comes from consistent year-after-year efforts of the NCNAACP, Democracy Now, Appalachian Voices, and the whole array of citizen organizations who are in the streets, in the courts and at the ballot box, trying to make change,” Read observes. “It doesn’t happen overnight and there’s always going to be another battle.”
Engaged citizenry, despite great obstacles, helps fuel hope into the state. “The message here, for me, is to come together and never stop,” he adds. Read and his team are in the development stage of their second season of “America Divided.” They hope to continue making people think about issues in a more informed way—and perhaps inciting action.
“The people who strongly disagree with our perspective, I don’t think I’m going to change their minds,” Read admits. “But it’s the people in the middle who you hope to educate, and it’s the people who agree with the vision put forth by the series and stories that you hope to energize. I think ‘preaching to the choir’ is a productive exercise and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting people who agree with you to get up and do something.”
Though currently streaming on EPIX.com, the New Hanover County NAACP and Working Films have partnered to screen “Democracy for Sale” for free at the Cameron Art Museum on Wed., Feb. 1.