By Annie Chang
To those disillusioned after the 2016 presidential election, “Knock Down the House”, a documentary featuring four women — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who ran for public office in 2018, offers a message of hope through the stories of women who fight to improve their broken communities. Directed by Rachel Lears, “Knock Down the House”, released May 1 on Netflix, tells the story of these women who ran ambitious underdog political campaigns in the 2018 midterm elections against prominent Democratic candidates.
Among the people recruited by the Brand New Congress, a political action committee created by former supporters of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, were four bold, working-class women: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin, Amy Vilela, and Cori Bush. The documentary traces each of their journeys. We see Ocasio-Cortez’s struggles of her family to make ends meet in the Bronx to her growth into a charismatic public servant fighting against Joe Crowley, an incumbent of New York’s 14th Congressional District since 1999. We watch Cori Bush, a registered nurse and pastor motivated by the injustice she experiences in her hometown of St. Louis during the Ferguson shootings, wage a fearless campaign for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District.
Meanwhile in Nevada, we are introduced to former businesswoman Amy Vilela, who sells her house and goes into debt to run for her state’s 4th Congressional District. Motivated by the death of her daughter, who passed away due to lack of health insurance, Vilela turns to public service in part to fight for health as a human right. In West Virginia, we find a state dominated by coal mining industries as we follow Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter, fighting for a healthier community in an election against U.S. Senate incumbent Senator Joe Manchin. Unlike many political old-timers primarily concerned with electoral victory, the documentary portrays these women as everyday Americans fighting for real change they hope to see.
The documentary provides an insider’s glimpse into grassroots political campaign making. We see Ocasio-Cortez’s team building a powerful graphic design posters that capture her revolutionary spirit and Latina heritage. We are immersed in the so-called “war room” for insurgent campaigns, witnessing the late-night hours, door-to-door canvassing and tears of joy and sadness. A group called the “Whiteheads”, named for their mass of white hairs, help Ocasio-Cortez figure out how to submit a list of voter’s signatures to the New York office so that she can avoid court proceedings.
It also documents the unique challenges that women face when running political office. Ocasio-Cortez opens the documentary putting on makeup and discussing the challenge that women face each day of how to present themselves to the world. Paula Jean also openly struggles with the advice that people have given her to “act like a bitch” and “show no emotion” as a female political candidate. While canvassing for votes in public, Ocasio-Cortez notes, “One of my problems is that when I’m trying to be kind to someone, I feel my voice go up two octaves.” To succeed, the documentary argues, women must unite in the face of challenges; by building each other up, each of us become stronger.
What is striking is the director’s openness to showing women showing emotion on the screen. When Vilela loses the election, we hear her raw, pained cries of sorrow, with the camera panning on her hunched figure in her living room. We see tears streaming down Ocasio-Cortez’s face when she explains she’s most scared of letting people down and again in front of the National Mall in D.C. when she recalls her father’s last words to her: “Make me proud.” The documentary says: It’s okay to cry, it’s human, and it’s powerful.
“Knock Down the House” shows us that these women, and hundreds of other Democrats, have started a movement, one that is just beginning. While many of their campaigns did not succeed, the documentary argues that the energy from this movement is not lost. We will fight for our rights and for a better America, although such change will take time. As Ocasio-Cortez tells Vilela after she loses her election, “For one of us to make it, a hundred of us have to try.”
“Knock Down the House” is available on Netflix.
Contact Annie Chang at [email protected].