‘Knock Down the House’ (2019) Review: It’s About Running To Win

By Steve Pulaski

Rachel Lears’ new documentary, Knock Down the House, opens on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez getting ready in the bathroom while speaking about how there is a large discrepancy between men and women’s garb in politics. She claims she’s always trying to “brace herself” for what people and the media will say about her appearance, something for which her male counterparts aren’t frequently criticized. Shortly after this, however, Ocasio-Cortez, who has come to be known simply as “AOC” in the last several months, states that when it comes to entering the congressional race for New York’s 14th district, it’s not about running “to pressure:” it’s about running “to win.”

Knock Down the House is a triumph as it captures the plight of four every-day women, whose anger and disenfranchisement has compelled them to challenge the Democratic establishment by running for their state governments. This often means challenging career politicians ostensibly more concerned about the subsequent election cycle as opposed to enacting any kind of meaningful policy that would help their districts. Lears, the woman behind the 2014 documentary The Hand That Feeds, spends time with each candidate, showing not only their arduous groundwork necessary to make something like this even remotely possible, but their unwavering commitment to have every-day Americans represented by every-day Americans who know their hardships all too well.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a household name thanks to a large social media presence, a magnetic personality, and policies that seem to be tailor-made to ruffle the feathers of older Democrats, is the focal point of the documentary. In the race for U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, she’s going up against former lobbyist-turned-politician Joe Crowley, who has held the position since 1999. You don’t have to look too far to see the stark contrasts in their personalities and approaches. In one scene, Ocasio-Cortez critiques one of Crowley’s mail-advertisements, blasting it for its unsubstantiated pandering and hollow platitudes that mention/criticize President Donald Trump rather than take a stand on any meaningful policy. She sees these holes in her candidate’s approach and goes after them by hitting the streets, in the truest sense of grassroots politics, knocking on doors, collecting hundreds of signatures, and erecting a platform that promises sweeping change to the city of New York. A lifelong resident of the Bronx, with a rhino-skin thanks to years of service jobs, there’s no doubt that Ocasio-Cortez is built for such a fight, yet she recognizes the disadvantage women have in politics. “For one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try,” she tells one of the other women profiled in the documentary.

Those women are Paula Jean Swearengin of Coal City, West Virginia, who takes a stand against the cancerous pollution and toxic chemicals brought on by big conglomerates that have left her neighbors and loved ones sick and even dead. In an emotional yet matter-of-fact scene, Swearengin drives up and down the streets of Coal City, pointing to the houses of neighbors she knows that are battling cancer. If another country came in attacked the land and polluted people, we’d go to war with them, Swearengin says at one point, “if it’s industry [doing those things], it’s okay. Meanwhile, Amy Vilela of Nevada, whose own devastating loss has made her fight tooth-and-nail for a single-payer health care system, central to her own grassroots movement. Vilela lost her 22-year-old daughter to a pulmonary embolism, the result of being unable to afford the tests and treatment due to lack of insurance. Welcome to America. Finally, there’s Cori Bush of St. Louis, a pastor and nurse who volunteered to help those injured in the Ferguson riots. She’s challenging Lacy Clay, part of a Democratic legacy family whose actions seemingly haven’t benefited many of the poor or impoverished residents of St. Louis in many years. She wants a safer, more prosperous district and then some.

Yet, Ocasio-Cortez is the centerpiece of the film, and with her millions of followers and vocal presence in the media, it’s about time for her to get a project that helps her define herself. In just 86 short minutes, we see her go from a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party of New York to a full-blown chip on their shoulders. She challenge Crowley to a debate, calls out the man who resides in Virginia despite allegedly representing the Bronx, Queens, and Rikers Island, and meet with members of the community to put a face to both the name and the policies of a woman in her late twenties, determined and rightfully mad as hell. Love or hate AOC, she’s a young person determined enough to try and make a change any way she can. Young people get blasted routinely for not being involved in politics, or wholly ignorant of the candidates and the issues, yet when someone like Ocasio-Cortez comes along, she’s chastised as inexperienced, incredulous, and out of her gourd. Watching her beat the odds is a sight to behold.

As if four admirable political hopefuls wasn’t strong enough, Lears’ presentation compliments them by not reducing them down to analytics and PowerPoint-esque breakdowns of their campaign. These are real women with valid stories; stories that have went ignored by politicians for way too long. Knock Down the House impressively transcends political bias in the way it focuses on the partisan anger felt by so many Americans, and it retains its focus on these up-and-comers, showing you that they’re not too different, if at all, from your neighbors and coworkers. These women lead by example, and Knock Down the House will go down as a troubling albeit fascinating time capsule of just how broken things got before a courageous group rose up to try to fix things. At least I hope.

Alas, however, the political cynic in me kept reemerging and asking the same questions: how long before these women become the enemy of their own progress? Will it happen? Will they become “bought and paid for” like the Democratic elite they want to take down? Those are questions with answers we won’t know until much later down the road, but that’s the appeal of grassroots campaigns. You get a glimpse of those who entered as outsiders before many of their souls were sold and their visions compromised. As of the present, you truly wind up feeling bad for those who lost and elated to see Ocasio-Cortez’s hard work pay off. They gave up more than the made men and women could ever fathom.

Grade: A-