"Knock Down The House" is not about Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela, or Paula Jean Swearengin. It's a story about how the system plays you.
Ever since Trump launched his campaign Democrats have tried to refashion themselves as polar opposites to the Republican establishment. But Knock Down the House begs to differ. The film shows that neither Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela, nor Paula Jean Swearengin were running against racist or misogynist Fox News viewers. They were running against Democrats. Motivated by what they considered was a broken system where corporate interests superseded the wants and needs of constituents all around America, these four women set out to become elected officials. What they found was that Trump had been right about one thing. The system is rigged. How much, though?
Rachel Lear's documentary (which aired on Netflix on May 1st) follows these four women on each of their challenge to incumbent Democrat seats in the primary elections of 2018. None of these women had background in politics, mind you, but the documentary starts at the beginning: when Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, two political action groups, recruit “outsider candidates to run against established politicians” by kick starting grassroots movements. We see Amy Vilela in Nevada leading a battle for Medicare-for-all, whose main motivation came after losing her daughter when she was refused care for failing to provide proof of insurance. "It's not just my family, it's 30,000 families a year losing loved ones because they don't have insurance."
Cori Bush "was drawn to the streets" when police fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that grabbed worldwide attention when protests led to tanks rolling into what once was a quiet neighborhood. Paula Jean Swearengin is a coal miner's daughter who "was fed up with watching her friends and family suffer from the environmental effects of the coal industry." As Paula Jean drives by Coal City, her hometown in West Virginia, she points to all the houses where people who died of cancer used to live. Swearengin ran to represent communities that breathe in toxins every day.The film, however, takes a special interest in the process of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became a political sensation from the moment she was elected in June 2018. AOC rises as the protagonist of this story, perhaps because her grasp of social and political ideology is far more sophisticated than anyone else’s in the film, but also because of the unique energy she brings to the stage (then again, it helps that she led a successful run, masters social media and has 4.17 million followers on Twitter). Ocasio-Cortez runs believing everyday American people deserve to be represented by everyday American people, especially in a district like The Bronx, which had been represented by Joe Crowley, a Congressman who had not been challenged for 14 years until AOC came along.
Ocasio-Cortez and her campaign members start by explaining how the entire election process is full of obstacles, starting with the fact that Crowley has appointed each and every one of the members of the Board of Election. Any discrepancy in a signature will deem it disqualified by those who revise them. “So,” AOC explains, “even though the actual requirement is 1,250, because we’re challenging the boss we need to collect 10,000 signatures."
Then, when the time comes to go through the signatures they collected, Jo-Ann Floyd, an experienced Civil Rights activist, explains how those entrenched in power pull a sleazy trick: the Election Board will contest as much of the documentation as they can. “If they have enough stuff to play with, they know that eventually you’re gonna be in the ballot, but they’re gonna keep you busy until the day before the election ‘cause then you’ll have no time.”
Unfortunately for them, AOC possesses an acute diagnosis of the situation in her district and brings forth the proposals she thinks will fix her community's problems. Her energy is so refreshing all you can do is stand in awe. Her talent as a public speaker is undeniable, not least because as an advisor tells her, no corporation owns her yet. When a skeptical constituent questions why they would trade a powerful Democrat like Crowley in exchange for her, an inexperienced freshman with a lot less power, she bluntly answers:
“I think we really need to look at what that power does now. When it matters, he doesn’t stand up for us. When it matters, he doesn’t advocate for our interests.”
In fact, the only challenged congressman to be featured in the film is Crowley himself, emerging as an antagonist who isn't necessarily that much of a bad guy. He's respectful, friendly, charismatic, and repeatedly assures people he’s the one to lead the fight against Trump. And yet, as you watch the documentary you can’t help but think that Crowley definitely had it coming. He might have vowed to be a hero, but his actions say otherwise, which makes him a perfect foil to this documentary's protagonists.
While AOC and the rest of the candidates make call after call, knock on door after door, and talk to as many people as they can, Crowley fails to show up to a local debate, sending a surrogate, instead, who then ends up getting completely grilled by AOC. Crowley is a straight, white millionaire male representing the diverse district of The Bronx and Queens... while living in Virginia. Ocasio-Cortez is a woman of color and third-generation Broxonite. Crowley didn't even run for office, let alone win his seat: he was appointed by his mentor as the Democratic nominee using a loophole in the New York election law, AOC explains. Which means Crowley isn't just incompetent, he's dangerously bordering on illegitimate.
Earlier in the film AOC explains how “political machines basically suppress democracy.” And she confirms it later on by comparing Crowley’s flyer to hers. Her flyer, smaller in size, reads “Vote Tuesday June 26th” in large letters, while emphasizing her name and laying out her proposals. Crowley’s pamphlets make no mention of either his commitments nor of election day, leading us to believe he’s in fact attempting to disencourage people from getting out to vote. And to make matters worse, a member of Vilela's campaign finds out Crowley has donated money to Steven Horsford, one of Vilela’s competitors. “Why is Joe Crowley one of the leaders pushing this? He is pouring all this money into the race that is two weeks before the New York primary. If Amy wins against the establishment, then things look a little bit more hopeful for the scrappy fighter from The Bronx.”Yet, Crowley doesn’t need to be a bad guy; it’s enough that he’s a run-of-the-mill white man in a suit, an old-timer Democrat whose time is up. In hindsight, her victory seems so common sensical it makes you wonder how he lasted so long without being challenged.
Like it happens in any inspirational movie involving competitions, the underdog wins. AOC shocks the media, Crowley, The Bronx and even herself by winning. We know what happened next. If only we could say the same about Bush, Vilela, or Swearegin, who are inevitably beaten by the system. Their races end not with bang but with a whimper. However far that whimper will echo remains to be seen, but even as they break down in defeat, "Knock Down the House" provides their cause momentum for a second shot at Congress and hope for grassroots movements everywhere.
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