Doc Review: Knock Down the House

May 26, 2019

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

“People are now waking up to see that the problems that we have in our district are problems that we ourselves can fix.” Those words came from Cori Bush, a middle aged woman of colour who decided to run for Congress in St.Louis, Missouri. She lives just 6 minutes from Ferguson, and she’s ready to see change.

Netflix’s new documentary, Knock Down the House, follows Bush and three other non-career politicians, Amy Vilela, Paula Swearengin, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as they run in the Democratic midterm primary elections. We follow the women for over a year, from campaigning to getting on the ballot and all the way to election day. It all started because two national grassroots groups, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, put out a nomination to recruit outsider candidates to run against established politicians. They were looking for people who did not fall into the same white, male, billionaire category currently occupied by 80% of American politicians.

These four women also happen to be further left than the Democrat incumbents in their respective states. They are women who stand up for free universal health care, for active climate change solutions, and are politicians who will not be persuaded by corporations and the PAC (Political Action Committee) money they are handing out. Some of the incumbents that these women are campaigning against have gone unchallenged for a long time – in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ district, the current incumbent Joe Crowley (who happens to be the 4th most powerful Democrat in the country) has been the only primary Democrat candidate in 14 years.

But it’s not without pushback, it’s not without obstacles, it’s not without facing extreme difficulties. Amy Vilela, who is running against 4 other Democrats in her district in Las Vegas, and is hurled a constant barrage of insults like “Marxist, Socialist, Communist” and statements like “you look Russian”. And the stereotypical insults for a women of colour are quick to follow “Go back to your country, go back to Mexico”. But she pushes through, because what she chooses to focus on instead is the hundreds of people who side with her, and who see her as a force for change.

Grassroots Reality

The documentary does a really excellent job at highlighting what a grassroots campaign really looks like. Often, it’s people who are running for the first time with very little funding. They don’t have offices, their campaign staff is largely populated by friends and family who believe in the candidate, and sometimes – as was the case with Amy Vilela – the campaign signs are spray painted by hand. A grassroots campaign takes over someone’s home for meetings, work sessions, and any other thing they don’t have the money to outsource. It’s surrounding your whole life with your belief in a candidate. And it’s getting out on the street, canvassing, making it out to debates forum – getting your face out there. Something that isn’t always priority to the incumbent candidate.

Ocasio-Cortez, who is running in NYC’s 14th district (Bronx/Queens) made an effort to be present at a small forum in her district. Very small. About 50 people sparsely populating a school gym small. But her running mate, Joe Crowley, was not there. He sent a stand in to answer the questions asked by the community members, based solely on her knowledge of his platform. Though Crowley claimed to believe these small sessions important, and gave an unidentified excuse for his absence, you could see frustration of his absence reflected in the forum attendees.  That frustration rallies into support for Ocasio-Cortez – she was there to listen and to represent them.

Where Knock Down the House falters is in driving home it’s message: Win or lose, it’s important to try.  Ocasio-Cortez says it herself in the documentary, “I get scared of the cynicism that could result from people really believing in something and it not working out”, and unfortunately this cynicism is not erased for us throughout the film. The documentary spends most of its run time focusing on the only candidate who won, and very little time showing you the three other women trying to change their communities.

For example, Paula Jean Swearengin won 30% of the vote in West Virginia. She’s a woman from a coal mining town who openly states that “if another country came in here and blew up our mountains and pollute our water we go to war. But industry can.” The documentary should show us the 30% of people who align with this statement. To show us that just because she did not win, it doesn’t mean people aren’t rallying for a new way of thinking and a new representation in Congress, and aren’t excited about the opportunity to have a choice.

The Whole is the Sum of it’s Parts

At the beginning of the documentary, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says to her social media followers,

“We’re running to re-define the political landscape… We’re not running to pressure the incumbent to the left. We’re running to win.” But what it does not say is that by simply running – regardless of whether you win or lose – you’re showing people who feel unrepresented that they are, in fact, represented.

By holding political platforms that fall further to the left than the norm, and by standing up and sharing those views, you’re pushing the whole political landscape slightly to the left. You’re pushing it towards a government that isn’t beholden to corporations, that cares about the future of the environment and the health and well being of it citizens.

So I will say here what the documentary was attempting to say, and what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said to Amy Vilela after she lost: that it is important to try. Win or lose, it is the most important thing to take up space, get on a platform, show the world that you hear the change they are asking for, and that you want to make it happen. “It’s not about any one of us individually, it’s about the whole movement…in order for one of us to make it through, 100 of us have to try.”

By Olivia Latte