There's this brilliant, effective scene in the new documentary "Knock Down the House" — which arrived on Netflix Wednesday — about the 2018 primary campaigns of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Cori Bush in Missouri, Amy Vilela in Nevada, and Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia.
In it, Vilela is part of a panel of candidates who are all seemingly progressive and at first politically identical, and so the moderator tries to illuminate what sets them apart, quickly. She asks candidates to raise their hand if they agree with a variation of progressive political positions.
Do you support the right to choose? Every candidate raises their hand in agreement. Do you support eliminating the gender pay gap? Every candidate's hand shoots up once again. Do you support trans people who want to serve in the military? Still, every single hand is raised in concurrence.
"Raise your hand if you refuse to take corporate PAC money," she finally says, and just one hand, that of Amy Vilela, remains up high in the air.
This scene communicates the thesis of the film — amplifying an alternative path to Congress for "ordinary" people and one that isn't supported by big corporate funding — but it also speaks to the general state of the Democratic party. Establishment politicians feel free to embrace progressive ideas, to cloak their centrist politics in calls for an end to mass incarceration and for health care as a human right, as long as it doesn't interrupt their profitability and special interests.
So while some reviews have described "Knock Down the House" as "a liberal feel-good movie," this documentary — via the truly progressive politics of the women it follows and the movements from which they emerged — doesn't romanticize the liberal Democratic establishment at all. Rather, the film poses a critical challenge to it. In one moment, early in Ocasio-Cortez's campaign, a constituent asks why they should trade in the power of Joe Crowley, a fourth-ranking House Democrat who hadn't faced a primary challenge in 14 years, for someone new and largely unknown. She responds, "We have to have the courage to say we can do better. We can do better."
With "Knock Down the House," director Rachel Lears was interested in "really looking at the intersection of money and politics and representation," she told Salon. "So the project started when I contacted Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, who were in the process of recruiting ordinary working people to run for Congress and to build a support system so that there could be a national fundraising base and various kinds of support for candidates who might otherwise not be running or not have access."
"It's not a coincidence," Lears added, "that Congress tends to skew wealthier than the American people, in addition to being older and whiter and male."
Organizations like Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress formed in the wake of the national rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and the 2016 election, in hopes of creating pipelines into government for people who would then work to transform it into a governing body that actually works for the people it claims to represent.
As Ocasio-Cortez famously did — and as did Bush and Swearengin — one of the defining principles was to find and propel candidates to challenge longtime and powerful Democratic incumbents who rarely used their power for the people. (In the Nevada election, there was no incumbent.)
Lears said she spoke to a few dozen candidates on the phone and decided to focus on these four women because their personal experiences and struggles mirrored those of millions of Americans across the country.
"They were running because they had personally experienced the effects of policy on regular people," Lears said. "They were coming from the communities that they seek to represent. Each of them had just these very specific experiences they'd been through of injustice or loss, or a combination of both. I knew that's what we needed for the film because, of course, we didn't know whether any of them were going to win. So it had to be stories and people that were going to be worth watching no matter what happened."
For Ocasio-Cortez, whom the film features most — Lears says this is a product of proximity, as the film's team were New York-based — it was the disastrous effects of the financial crisis and crippling student debt. Her family home was on the verge of going into foreclosure after her dad passed away, and so she started waitressing double shifts to contribute.
Bush is a mother, nurse and minister who offered people medical aid during the protests in Ferguson after the police killing of Mike Brown. Seeking to harness collective action over individual political power, Bush was running against Rep. William Lacy Clay in a district that had been represented by Clay and his father before him since 1959.
A few years ago, Vilela's 22-year-old daughter passed away after going to the hospital because of a blood clot and being denied medical testing because of a lack of proof of insurance. Vilela planned to support Medicare For All on day one, should she have been elected.
And Swearengin, who faced Sen. Joe Manchin in the primaries, had witnessed and felt the harmful environmental effects of the coal industry on people's lives. In one poignant scene in "Knock Down the House," she drove around in her West Virginia community, pointing out those she knew had died from cancer. On one street, she pointed out and recalled someone from nearly every single house on the block.
"There are issues that are common to all of the constituencies of these four candidates, but there's also bridges of solidarity between communities," Lears said. "To me that was one of the most powerful things to see in the course of making the film."
Before Ocasio-Cortez's stunning victory, "Knock Down the House" operated like a grassroots campaign itself, without a lot of support or infrastructure, but the small team was determined to produce this passion project. But after the New York primary, the stakes exploded. Lears and her team pushed to edit the footage as quickly as possible to get it ready for its Sundance premiere. And now Lears said, aside from its Netflix release, "Knock Down the House" is heading to 190 countries and has already been translated into 28 languages. However, she continued, "this is an independent story. I feel incredibly fortunate to have made a film that this many people want to see, but like all the campaigns in the film, this was a very grassroots affair."
The excitement around the film grew as Ocasio-Cortez's own profile did. For those who love following the Democratic freshmen on social media and seeing her dismember GOP operatives with stinging analysis, the film offers some of that, but it also features touching, intimate moments with the Bronx native that feel extremely revealing about her politics and resilience.
The scene in which civil rights veteran Rev. Darryl Gray tells AOC and other members of Justice Democrats, "You have to be fearless, because they’re going to come after you," is almost comical now, knowing what she has endured since entering the national spotlight. A recent study found that Fox News and Fox Business Network mentioned Ocasio-Cortez just under 76 times a day during a recent six-week period.
Yet far before Ocasio-Cortez became a fixation for Fox News, her frustration with the status quo is evident. In one scene in the documentary, she rips one of Crowley's primary mailers to shreds for failing to include a primary date or any of his policy plans for his district, beyond the superficial pledge of "taking on Donald Trump." Her disappointment is similarly and justifiably brutal when he fails to show up for the scheduled community debate and instead sends a surrogate in his place.
The film also goes inside her apartment and family home, introducing viewers to her mother and niece, and offering a window into the fabric of Ocasio-Cortez's upbringing, as well as her dreams and anxieties. It's a deeply humanizing portrait of a 29-year-old woman who has in many ways been stripped down to a left/right binary obsession. In one of the final scenes, after the primary win, Ocasio-Cortez and her partner visit Washington, and both are moved to tears as they stand outside the building, which will become her new home base come 2019.
So, the documentary is optimistic and endearing, but not because it's a shallow "feel-good" film. Despite the singular victory of Ocasio-Cortez in "Knock Down the House," and the right wing backlash to her, it's clear that the work of these four women and the organizing from Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress has had a tangible impact on American politics.
"You look at the 2020 Democratic field and there's quite a few candidates that are refusing to take corporate funds," Lears said. "I mean that's becoming a litmus test of how accountable you're going to be to constituents. I think if it weren't for campaigns like these in 2018, we wouldn't be seeing that."
For any of these politicians, activists and organizers, featured in "Knock Down the House," these campaigns are just the beginning. They are building on the momentum from movements and collective struggles like Black Lives Matter, Abolish ICE, the Women's March, #MeToo, the fight for transgender rights, Medicare for All, an end to mass incarceration and unchecked police brutality, and are using unconventional entry points into government as a way to disrupt and rebuild institutional power. As Ocasio-Cortez says in the film, "We’re not running to make a statement. We’re not running to pressure the incumbent to the left. We’re running to win."
In this way, Ocasio-Cortez's victory in New York is not just reflective of her perseverance and vision, but a result of the collective efforts of Bush, Vilela and Swearengin, and their campaign architects and supporters. It is a win for working people, fed up with corporate power and corrupt politicians, across the nation.
On the night of Ocasio-Cortez's primary win last June, as the remarkable results rolled in, a reporter asks her how it feels to beat a man who was known as "the Queens machine." Despite all of her bubbling elation and adrenaline to her just-announced victory, Ocasio-Cortez answers, with the utmost clarity, "We meet a machine with a movement."