Knock Down the House (2019)
Directed by Rachel Lears
When you set out to make a campaign documentary, you never know what kind of story you’re going to end up telling. The result of the eventual election determines whether your documentary will be more like “Rocky” or “Rocky II.” For director Rachel Lears, an entirely different sort of outcome was possible. Instead of putting her eggs in one basket, she spread them across the country—covering outsider female candidates running for office in New York, West Virginia, Missouri, and Nevada. In the end, “Knock Down the House” wasn’t the story of a winner or a loser, but about whether individual candidates’ losses can signify a victory for the common cause.
In red-state America, the worst three-letter word isn’t a word at all, but initials: AOC. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Congresswoman from New York, has become a frequent target of the Fox News Channel’s demeaning (and often sexist) mockery. But in Lears’s documentary, Ocasio-Cortez is a mere 28 years old, and few people outside the Bronx had ever heard her name. Who, then, would’ve guessed that in only a year the Latina bartender from New York would be striking fear into the hearts of moderate to far-right people across the country? If you watch “Knock Down the House,” you might be able to. Ocasio-Cortez is charismatic, bubbly, brave, intimidating, and feisty, but mostly she’s normal (if incredibly well-spoken). In her “off-camera” moments (out of view of the press, but still being watched by Lears’s cameras), she acts like any millennial American. She cracks jokes, she shows vulnerabilities, she has fun. Little did Lears know that Ocasio-Cortez would be the one subject who would go on to win her primary election. Her other subjects, who get less focus, are also very passionate about serving their constituency. Amy Vilela, who fought hard on a platform of Medicare for All, got a new Twitter follower out of it (well, I’m sure many more, but definitely one). Her acerbic wit and emotional commitment to her causes is admirable as hell. I loved her campaign staff, too. It all felt so grassroots, and it was. These women are the future of the country, evening out congressional representation until it looks like the country it’s served to represent.
I knew a documentary about three candidates losing elections and one winning might be emotional, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional punches these women delivered. But more striking was their hope, not just that they would win individually but that they would win as a group, as a movement—and, in a way, they did. One Ocasio-Cortez quote frames the entire documentary. She says, “In order for one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try.” This was before Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in the primary election for Congress, and before she realized she was that one. It shifts the focus from being about individual defeat to being about taking a stand against the status quo, despite the odds.