The only bad part about the documentary Pay 2 Play is that it’s all happening. Part history lesson, part political refresher, and all horrible in its truth—the game of Monopoly has come to life in the bones of the government. Director John Wellington Ennis sees the game that corporations and lobbyists are playing with the U.S. government, and he’s scared. He’s scared for the future of our country, but mostly for his daughter’s future. Unfortunately, as he quickly discovers, the bleak future he’s so worried about is already here.
Even though this documentary is only about an hour and a half long, it sums up a few of the biggest corruption scandals that have been uncovered in the last ten years in the federal government and in the political campaigns of Ohio. It’s dense. There is so much information that if you’re unfamiliar with anything political, it’s probably overwhelming, in the same way that voting in primaries can be. Ennis makes the case that individual citizens can make a difference, and it starts with being informed.
If you’re into politics and have been following along with the Supreme Court’s decisions the last few years, this documentary probably lacks depth, but it is tightly sewn in its approach and intent as a primer for understanding the perspective of groups like Occupy Wall Street and encouraging citizen education on political issues. Pay 2 Play argues that everyone, regardless of political position, should have an equal say in who represents him or her in the government.
Ennis parallels the corruption scandals in Ohio and the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) case to the history of the game Monopoly. QUICK HISTORY: The Parker Brothers bought Monopoly from Charles Darrow, a man who claimed to have invented the game. Except the game allegedly wasn’t actually his—it was created and patented first as The Landlord’s Game by Lizzie J. Magie, and evolved into a well-known folk game. Darrow became a millionaire, and through the power of money and marketing, became widely known as the sole inventor of the game to the public. They changed the narrative of history, kind of like an old-timey Mean Girls. The guy with the most money wins, just like in the game.
So what the heck does that have to do with politics today? Well, the Citizens United case opened the door to corporate and union campaign advocacy through media, including independent television advertisements and films. The filmmaker and his interviewees argue that this is a very bad thing because it allows specific agendas to get unfair and unbalanced attention in the media, while also pushing independent campaigns out of the running because they can’t afford to advertise on a massive scale. If voters don’t know you exist in the first place, you’re hardline on specific issues and know nothing about others, or you live in an area that is severely gerrymandered, it’s hard to make any changes happen in a region, let alone an entire country. Today, the person with the most money might not even be a person.
Pay 2 Play is very obvious in its intentions. It is a call to action. It’s a rallying cry from the left through art. The film (and Ennis himself) wears its heart on its sleeve, following the very personal stories of the grassroots campaigns of Ohio Democratic congressional nominees, through their highs and lows since 2005. Ennis speaks to Jack Abramoff and Noam Chomsky, too, but the focus is on the academics, artists, and politicians who eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff.
Even though the documentary is heavily focused on the left’s side, it also gives credit to the intelligence of the viewer. Much of the information given is available publicly, thanks to the Internet, and the way it is presented is meant to stir discussion and uses a modified Monopoly game board to make specific points and incite reaction. It doesn’t pretend to be unbiased from the start, with Ennis’s admission of concern for his child’s future. Ennis even shows what he has done to try and fight back for more fairness, including getting arrested for vandalism (AKA street art), turning a busy intersection into a Monopoly board, and listing his ideas for fixing the pay to play system.
This film feels like a stream expanding into to a wider river of progress. While he may not have the platform of Michael Moore or Citizens United, Ennis does draw a compelling reason to reexamine the way our political world works. The framing through the game of Monopoly makes his argument easy to understand, but with an already crowded news cycle and apathetic, exhausted citizens, his message may get lost in the current. That sounds bleak, but Ennis is optimistic about the power we wield as voters, so long as we remember our own voices.