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Knock Down the House | Rachel Lears

May 10, 2019

In the 2018 election, more women, and specifically women of color, ran for elected office than ever before. Many of these women were progressives running grassroots campaigns against establishment Democrats, advocating for what they consider to be real progressive change in the face of a stagnation upheld by gatekeepers of the status quo. Rachel Lears’s new documentary, Knock Down the House, follows Congressional bids from Nevada’s Amy Vilela and Missouri’s Cori Bush, as well as West Virginiaian Paula Jean Swearingen’s primary challenge to incumbent Democratic senator Joe Manchin. Sticking with these three candidates alone, the film could have proved an inspiring but ultimately demoralizing tale of by-the-people-for-the-people spirit being struck down by entrenched political machines. Its real coup-de-grace, then, comes in the form of a young bartender from the Bronx, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who has since become one of the Democratic Party’s brightest stars and the go-to progressive boogeyman of conservative media.

Stylistically, there’s nothing new here — this is feel-good, surface-level poli-doc territory…but it’s difficult not to feel energized and moved by the passion on display.

Ocasio-Cortez’s now legendary victory against entrenched Rep. Joe Crowley (whose blasé “there there little lady” attitude is as infuriating as it is patronizing) provides the backbone of Knock Down the House, helping to elevate it from a tale of well-intentioned but ultimately crushed opposition to a film that celebrates the power and viability of grassroots progressive activism. Stylistically, there’s nothing new here — this is feel-good, surface-level poli-doc territory, the “villains” rendered as mostly opaque figures of political torpor, comfortable in their positions but uninterested in any major change that may upset their corporate donors. But it’s difficult not to feel energized and moved by the passion on display. Even as the other upstarts ultimately fail to unseat those they challenge, the hunger for new faces and effective leadership is palpable. Lears’s focus on AOC is understandable, and charting her rise is the film’s functional selling point. But just as thematically and ideologically important to the director is the telling of stories of noble failure. Lears doesn’t sugarcoat things; she knows the road is long and that there will be setbacks and disappointments along the way. But there have been few images seen recently quite as affecting as the shot here of AOC sitting in front of the Capitol building after her unlikely election victory, in tears. She’s just one person — but enough cause for hope.

You can currently stream Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House on Netflix.

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