"Pay 2 Play" Looks Behind The Curtain Review

It’s easy to be disenchanted with the United States’ political system. Even when voters do manage to get behind hope and change in the form of idealistic candidates like Barack Obama, something always manages to disappoint us. If there is one thing I have learned from House of Cards (not to mention real life), it is that politics is all about bargaining and back-and-forth, and those in political power usually end up having to sacrifice some of their previously stated beliefs in order to stay there (or, they just murder someone). The rich and powerful few throw their substantial weight behind candidates who are willing to cow to their every demand and keep them rich and powerful, without giving anyone else a chance to speak up for the regular folks. Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes is a documentary that focuses on that one percent of people who have more than their fair share of control over our political system, and encourages the rest of us to do something about it.

Activist filmmaker John Wellington Ennis documents electoral races in the always-controversial state of Ohio, where outsiders attempt to get on the ballot despite having little to no financing--especially in contrast with their corporate-supported rivals. He peeks behind the curtain at the congressional campaign of first-time candidate Surya Yalamanchili, who had to go up against his opponent’s big wallets--not to mention some racist commentary on his name as well as some good old gerrymandering--in order to get onto the ballot. In between these scenes, Ennis interviews everyone from linguist/political commentator Noam Chomsky, to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, to former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer and beyond. Whether it be through the bill-writing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or the infamous billionaire Koch brothers, the notion that corporations can have more control over the government than the people the government is supposed to serve is upsetting, albeit not terribly shocking.

Ennis is infectiously earnest in his belief that, while the system is broken, it can be fixed if enough of us decide to put our minds to it. His narration is bursting with positivity and motivation, which keeps Pay 2 Play from being too much of a downer. His use of footage of the various protest movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, that have made attempts at changing the world provides jaded and frustrated audience members with a decent call to action. However, when Ennis narrows the focus to spotlight his own attempts to spread change via street art, and his consequent arrest for doing so, the film starts to feel a little too self-congratulatory--as though audience members should be impressed and inspired by his actions. I understand that he’s trying to show how even one individual can make a difference, but the tone of these scenes feels a bit too narcissistic and navel-gazing.

If you’re at all remotely informed about current events, Pay 2 Play won’t tell you anything that you don’t already know, but the film’s overall message--that our political system is too much like a game of Monopoly, controlled by only a powerful few--is worth repeating nonetheless. Maybe if enough voices join in to do so, something will eventually change.


The single-disc release features 24 minutes of bonus footage.

"Pay 2 Play: Democracy's High Stakes" is on sale January 2, 2015 and is not rated. Documentary. Written and directed by John Wellington Ennis.

Lee Jutton • Staff Writer

Lee attended NYU for Film & TV Production, but she now works mostly in PR. Her primary obsessions in life are Doctor Who, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Arsenal F.C. When not writing about things she's watched, she's running or kickboxing in preparation for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 


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