This all-access, dig-in-and-dig-deep documentary from Rachel Lears and co-writer Robin Blotnick concerns the 2018 primary campaigns of four progressive, grassroots, insurrectionist, female Democrats: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a waitress/bartender from New York who is forced to work double shifts to save her family home from foreclosure. Amy Vilela is a Nevada mom who lost her 22-year-old daughter to a brain clot when a hospital turned the young woman away for lack of health insurance. Cori Bush is a St. Louis nurse who rushed to help the wounded during the Ferguson, Missouri riots and watched as the police shooting of an unarmed black man shook her community to its core. And Paula Jean Swearengin is a coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia, who witnessed her neighbors suffer and die from the killing effects of the coal industry.
Each is eager to unseat the male incumbent and lay waste to business-as-usual politics, though Ocasio-Cortez emerges as the only victor. And watching the then 28-year-old Ocasia-Cortez, a.k.a. AOC, break through using social media and a direct approach that erases barriers is an inspiring lesson in street politics as she takes on veteran New York Rep. Joe Crowley, where he was the top-ranked Democrat in the House under 70.
Lears was given unprecedented entrée to AOC’s six-month campaign as she refuses PAC donations and declines to ass-kiss the Democratic establishment. AOC, a proud member of her Puerto Rican community, seems to revel in the fact that she’s a self-proclaimed “insurgent outsider candidate that’s a woman of color from the Bronx” — a female David to Crowley’s party-backed Goliath.
The films follows AOC to the Board of Elections to watch her file the signatures necessary to land on the ballot. The law requires 1,000 signatures; she brought 10,000, all in support of a progressive platform that includes Medicare for all, free public college, a tax on the wealthy and the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
What does Crowley stand for, besides opposition to Trump? You’ll never know from his campaign to continue, after 10 terms, running New York’s 14th congressional district. Crowley is so confident of winning that he doesn’t even attend the first debate, sending a proxy in his place. That kind of hubris helps AOC trounce him. Later, after defeating Republican opponent Anthony Pappas in the general election, AOC, at 29, became the youngest woman ever to serve in the U.S. Congress.
You could argue that Knock Down the House is gilding the lily by giving so much of its running time to AOC, trading in her burgeoning popularity to win audiences for this Netflix doc. Fair enough. But the inherent and more crucial message in this probing film is that many women would have to fail in order for one to succeed. Lears, who served as her own cinematographer with Blotnick editing, makes it abundantly clear that that the other female candidates under her microscope make points at least equally valid as AOC’s and that they would run again in the future. Not by the old rules. “You have to beat them with a totally different game,” says AOC. That new game is on gritty, glorious view in Knock Down the House, the story of four underdogs who supported each other and will continue to do so in an effort to become Trump’s living nightmare. The fighting spirit of this female quartet blazes through every frame of this galvanizing film. “We did this without knowing shit,” says Vilela. That’s just a beginning. Way before the movie ends, you’ll feel their fire.