Rachel Lears was looking for hope. The ongoing legacy of the 2016 election had left the documentarian scouring for stories that would counteract, in her words, “the cynicism and despair that a lot of us felt.” She began to notice that progressive organizations like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats were encouraging a number of “ordinary people,” i.e. not career politicians and corporate-sponsored fatcats, to run for Congress in the 2018 midterms. The fact that an unprecedented amount of women and people of color were throwing their names in the ring had also caught her attention.
So she she decided to follow around a few of these prospective representatives and senators, many of whom were taking on Democratic incumbents with long histories in office. There was Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter running for a seat in West Virginia. There was Cori Bush, a registered nurse and activist trying to get elected to represent St. Louis, Missouri. There was Amy Vilela, who was looking to make a difference in the Las Vegas race for the House.
And then there was this 28-year-old Latina waitress in NYC that seemed to be attracting a lot of attention.
Knock Down the House gives equal time (more or less) to all four of these female candidates, but it’s destined to forever be known as “the A.O.C. doc.” That’s what everyone at Sundance had been calling it throughout the week, and now that Netflix has picked it up to show sometime in 2018, that’s almost assuredly how future moviegoers and viewers will refer to it. Because while Lears had picked a quartet of worthy political newbies to follow around, as well as covering a wide demographic swath of the United States, the filmmaker had the good fortune to be there when Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez decided to challenge Joe Crowley for New York’s 14th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In other words, her cameras were rolling as the equivalent of a Congressional rock star decided to seriously shake shit up — to “meet a [political] machine with a movement,” as she says. That’s insanely good luck on her part. That makes all the difference.
It’s not a slight against Swearengin, Bush or Vilela, mind you — the doc lets you get to know these women, see them in action, tour their homes and neighborhoods, hear why they’ve been spurred into action and toward a life of public service. Swearengin points out how many of her fellow residents of Coal City, West Virginia, have had cancer due to lives lived directly or peripherally in the mines, and how everyone in power seems to be in bed with the industry. The African-American Bush mentions that she lives “six minutes away from where Mike Brown was murdered,” and how seeing what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of his death radicalized her. (“I’m working my melanin!” she gleefully declares.) Vilela lost her 22-year-old daughter to a brain embolism when the young woman was denied medical service due to insurance reasons. And Lears underlines the solidarity between all four of these neophytes, often showing them grouped together in national Democratic party summits. Healthcare, discrimination, and the feeling that everyday folks are being ignored by their reps comes up a lot with all of them. So does the word “community.”
Still, it’s Ocasio-Cortez — current savior of the prog-left, scourge of the right and the “won’t see it coming” challenger of an entrenched political machine — who clearly shines brightest in the spotlight here. A young Puerto Rican woman who took on a job schlepping ice and serving drinks in a restaurant to help make ends meet, she’s instantly branded as crazy for taking on Crowley, an old-school insider who had not had a serious contender for the seat in 14 years. Neverthless, she persists, pounding the pavement and knocking on doors and emphasizing that she wants to stand up for the working-class folks in the outer boroughs. “I’m an outsider grassroots candidate that’s a women of color from the Bronx,” Ocasio-Cortez says. She knows that this makes her an alternative to another old white man in a suit, as well as a target.
Knocking Down the House really is at its best when it’s playing fly-on-the-wall with Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, showing her fretting about what she needs to do to play the game and if she’s getting her message across to voters. Yes, she is inexperienced, but you also see how savvy A.O.C. is regarding the machinations of running for office; at one point, she breaks down the different ways that she and her opponent have designed their mailer ads, noting that that her proletariat-hero portrait is buffered by policies and Crowley’s mentions Trump four times yet doesn’t mention the primary date. The doc is there when she bristles at her rival not showing up for a debate among Bronx/Queens residents and it’s there when she’s worrying herself over a later debate that will be broadcast on the local channel NY-1. It’s there when she quietly freaks out next to her boyfriend and when her mom is razzing her.
Most importantly, Lears and her crew are there on election night for every one of the candidates. Some of these campaigns do not turn out well. Tears and cheers both get screen time. But a documentary lives and dies by the moments it captures, and to be in the room where it happens when “Alexandria the Great” discovers she’s beaten the odds and won a seat in House is to experience a rush of nonfiction bliss. You know what’s coming, and the film still makes you gasp as, hands over her mouth, the new Congresswoman realizes what just happened.
Some folks will inevitably call this propaganda. They are welcome to do so. Others will recognize that, in the collective stories of these women seeking to fulfill a civic duty, Knocking Down the House provides a look at risking everything to try to make a difference. And it’s in singular story regarding the 28-year-old from the Bronx, it’s got a real-life Rocky movie on its hands — a triumph-of-the-underdog doc that showcases an against-the-odds American heroine. It ends with a swiveling shot that suddenly frames A.O.C. and her partner against the United States Capitol. It’s a manipulative moment. It’s also effective as hell when you realize the bigger picture inherent in that composition.