Film & Television · Politics

‘Knock Down the House’: Four Women Dare to Run for Congress

Knock Down the House makes it clear that each of these women owed much to the organizations Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats. Although each is heroic in her own right, they were part of a larger push to diversify the House and bring to the forefront the kind of progressive goals that Bernie Sanders championed prior to 2016. None of the candidates accepted PAC, corporate, or lobbyist donations. In fact, each is seen making phone calls to local, individual donors.

Underdogs from the beginning, most of the women found that their stories were not to have happy endings. Bush, who had attempted to split the African-American vote in her run against incumbent (and political legacy) William Lacy Clay, lost the nomination by 20 points. Swearengin lost to incumbent Joe Manchin by nearly 40 points. And, when Vilela learns that she too has lost—by more than 50 points—she collapses and sobs. Lears respectfully pulls the camera back and allows the candidate to grieve in private.

“For one of us to make it,” Ocasio-Cortez observes (and consoles), “a hundred of us have to try.”

Fortunately for Lears and the creative and production team of Knock Down the House, Ocasio-Cortez pulls out an unlikely but significant victory, soundly beating Crowley. Even knowing the outcome of the New York District 14 primary (and eventual general election, in which she earned nearly 80% of the vote), it’s exciting to watch the young candidate become more confident and charismatic. When she’s finally able to face Crowley in a live debate, she politely but definitively skewers him. She knocks on doors, marches in parades, enlists her young relatives to help pass out flyers. On the day of the primary itself, Ocasio-Cortez (soon to be known simply as AOC) is so nervous, she doesn’t watch the early returns. Arriving at her campaign’s party, she realizes that the media is waiting for her. In an amusing moment, she’s stopped at the door, but explains to the bouncer, “I’m Alex, that’s me on the poster!” Her triumph is all the more joyful because it represents not only her hard work, but that of the other women we’ve met.

Director Lears remembers that evening as “an out-of-body experience,” as she explained to Interview magazine. “I learned that she was ahead at the same moment she did.

“I really hope the film can help support the conversations that are already happening and start some new ones. I’m optimistic because I have to be. But I’m not optimistic in an unrealistic sense, and that’s why I think it’s very important to have the losses in the film. We never considered cutting them out. Of course, the industry people started talking to us in July about, ‘Why don’t you just make it about Alexandria?’ And I was like, ‘Just wait until you meet the others. It’s worth it.'”

Audiences at the Sundance Film Festival agreed. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, but won the Audience Awards for both Documentary and Festival Favorite. The film has earned uniformly positive reviews and is generating exactly the kind of buzz that Lears craves.

As Knock Down the House argues so compellingly, the United States of America cannot be a government by and for the people unless people are willing to step up and make it so.

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