Although the four women featured in Rachel Lears’ documentary Knock Down the House are all Democrats, it’s not really a Democrat-vs-Republican movie. It assumes you share the liberal viewpoints of its subjects and then moves not to a battle on the political spectrum, but a larger fight of insurgents versus the establishment. Lears’ taps into the zeitgeist by showing people who feel that the system no longer works for them, and that it’s run by lobbyists and special interests that shut out the working class. Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the “star” of Knock Down the House, the movie is at its best when it shows the hard work of community organizing. There are times when the documentary feels more designed to be inspiring than informative, but it’s also a vital snapshot of the Democratic party’s transformation to a more progressive vision for America.
Ocasio-Cortez, running to unseat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th district, is the through line for Knock Down the House, but the film also brings some attention to Paula Jean Swearengin (running against Joe Manchin for the West Virginia Senate), Cori Bush (running against Lacy Clay in the Missouri 1st), and Amy Vilela (running against Steve Horsford in the Nevada 4th). The connective tissue is that not only as women do these candidates have to play a tougher game when the deck is stacked in favor of white men, but they also have to fight against an establishment that has a vested interest in keeping its hands on the levers of power. The four candidates are fighting clearly for the interests of the working class, who have been shut out of the political process in favor of lobbyists and special interests.
Knock Down the House briefly touches on community organizing and the source for these candidates by noting the work of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, but they become more of a footnote in the story of the candidates themselves, and ultimately, in the story of Ocasio-Cortez. The movie belongs to her because she’s the most well-known of the candidates: a Latina bartender who was recruited to run by a grassroots organization and who ended up taking down the 4th most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives. Lears’ documentary adds some texture to Ocasio-Cortez’ now-famous narrative by showing the person behind the legend, and you can immediately see why she connected with voters.
Within the framework of insurgents versus the establishment, it’s easy to understand why Ocasio-Cortez scares the hell out of the establishment, both on the left and the right. She’s playing a 21st century game and knows how to speak directly to working class voters. If Ocasio-Cortez represents the future (and Knock Down the House thinks that she does), that’s horrifying for the political establishment that is comfortable with the game where everyone is bought and paid for by special interests. Once you see Knock Down the House, it makes total sense why establishment Democrats dismiss her, and Republicans call her a socialist. I don’t know if Ocasio-Cortez is a force to be reckoned with as a congresswoman (the clips of her taking down people in congressional hearings is promising) because it’s too early to tell. But judging Ocasio-Cortez on her campaigning, I pity any challenger who tries to take her on.
The main problem with framing the movie around Ocasio-Cortez is that you lose sight of the bigger picture that’s being painted by grassroots organizing. The more the film is about Ocasio-Cortez, the more it seems like she’s winning on the strength of her individuality rather than being part of a movement. It sends the message that what matters isn’t the nuts-and-bolts campaigning or the unglamorous work of politics, but simply being an effective messenger. I don’t think Knock Down the House paints Ocasio-Cortez as a cult of personality figure, but I also think that in its quest to highlight an inspiring figure, it loses sight of what makes the next Ocasio-Cortez and how to really strike down the establishment. Finding exceptional people is certainly a start, but there’s more to it than that.
Knock Down the House has the framework of a David vs. Goliath story, but its best moments are seeing how David plans to take down Goliath. There’s a brilliant scene where Ocasio-Cortez compares her mailer to Crowley’s. Her mailer is simple and effective; it highlights her name, the date of the primary, and her key positions. Crowley’s mailer is bloated and inept, the product of consultants and the D.C. establishment that doesn’t want anything to do with voters other than keeping them in line with platitudes and pork. In these moments when Knock Down the House drills down into the gulf between the establishment and the progressive insurgency, it hints at a future where our hope stretches beyond just a handful of inspiring candidates.