Knock Down the House
A rousing and insightful look at the divisions currently occurring in American politics today, Rachel Lears’ inspiring and entertaining documentary Knock Down the House is less about examining a specific movement within the Democratic Party and more about the people attempting to implement much needed changes to a stagnating two-party system. While it will likely be remembered as a film that documents popular and likable rookie politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s improbable and surprising rise to power, Knock Down the House is more importantly about four different outsiders expressing genuine concerns about legacy politicians in their home states.
Knock Down the House takes place in the weeks and months leading up to the 2018 midterm primaries, which would determine the final names on the ballot for the most important election in the United States since the divisive and controversial presidential vote two years prior. After proving their ineffectiveness at stopping a cult of personality like Donald Trump, activist groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats begin vetting new, outside the box candidates that could challenge their party’s now proven ineffective status quo. Cortez, a waitress and Bronx native, is a well spoken, impassioned young woman running for a congressional seat against Joe Crowley – the fourth most powerful Democrat in the world, who actually lives in Virginia for most of the year, was never actually elected to his seat, and hasn’t had to compete in a primary in fourteen years – on a platform of rigorous public engagement and inclusiveness. Paula Jean Swearengin, from the very literally named Coal City, West Virginia, runs for a senate seat out of fears that industrial money has put the fears and health concerns of locals secondary in the minds of their national leaders. Cori Bush, from St. Louis, Missouri, lives about six minutes away from Ferguson, and is justifiably upset that their congressman (Lacy Clay, who took over his seat from his father) hasn’t done anything meaningful in the aftermath of recent racial tensions. Amy Vilea, a Nevada businesswoman, abhors corporate funded politics in every form, and is personally motivated by a past family tragedy to tirelessly advocate for change, even if it means spending every last cent of her own money.
Many who watch Knock Down the House will likely already know the outcome to at least one of the four stories profiled by Mears, but it’s important to remember that – at the time – it seemed like none of these four women had a chance. Yes, they were women and people of colour, but they were up against politicians that have been backed and handpicked by the old money purse string holders of their party. Their desire to shake things up in Washington is admirable, but as Mears proves, it’s hard to rouse people from their comfort zones, no matter how noble the cause. If people don’t see their selected representative doing anything terrible, they’ll always be less inclined to vote against them. Knock Down the House isn’t a profile of four women attempting to uncover corruption, or even to stick it to the Trump administration. It’s a film about how daunting it can be to make people question the effectiveness of their leadership when the everyday person on the street probably has little clue as to what it is their representatives actually do.
What emerges most prominently from Knock Down the House is the arrogance and complacency that’s bred among politicians who’ve been able to coast through their jobs thanks to years of indifference, and how those feelings prey on the insecurities of their constituents. When Cori Bush approaches a man from her community about voting against the incumbent Clay, he hears exactly what she’s saying about demanding change in the wake of Ferguson, but he implies that there will always be a fear that by voting against their established representative, they’ll lose one of the most powerful black voices in congress. Cortez is similarly questioned at an early rally as to why they should vote for her, when their current representative (who has a vested interested in the other three races profiled in the film that take place weeks before the New York primaries) holds so much power. Bush and Cortez have similar answers: what does the power wielded by Clay and Crowley do for anyone on a local or state level? The people who pose these questions don’t have much of an answer, and I doubt many others would, too.
Without knowing if any of her subjects could actually win their races before they happened, it’s understandable why Lears would build Knock Down the House largely around Cortez, a woman who has the charisma and life experience that Hollywood screenwriters and directors would love to capture in a bottle. In one of the best scenes in any film this year, the underestimated Cortez rips into a Crowley aide who’s been sent in the congressman’s place to a town hall forum in The Bronx. It’s clear that Crowley can’t be bothered with attending of a meeting of just around a hundred people (despite his constant protests to the contrary), and Cortez seizes upon the moment to propel her grassroots campaign to another level. Not all of Lears’ subjects are afforded such moments, but the filmmaker knows exactly how to frame Cortez as an everywoman and as a savvy, well spoken politician equally. One gets the sense that if the world were a fair and just place, where all political campaigns were devoid of master strategists and corporate funding, that Cortez would’ve beaten Crowley in a walk.
But while Cortez gives Knock Down the House a strong narrative backbone, it means that Lears has less time to spend with the three other, equally fascinating women and their campaigns. We get a nice amount of personal detail when it comes to Swearengin (the shiest of the group) and Bush (the most politically polished of the four), but very little about how their campaigns are run. With Vilea, who doesn’t show up in the film until relatively late, there’s a lot of nifty details about her campaign, but her reasons for running are held back by Lears in favour of the film having a big second act reveal that’s both moving and inorganic. They compliment Cortez’s story nicely, but don’t exactly contrast, possibly given the enormous difficulty level of the New Yorker’s race in comparison to Lears’ other subjects.
It’s also hard not to feel like Knock Down the House is a film without an ending. Certainly in the case of Cortez and the subjects who’ll likely take another run at politics the next chance they get, their story is still unfolding. There could be a natural sequel to Knock Down the House in two to eight years looking at how their lives, policies, and communities have changed. These candidates ran on hope and a genuine desire for change, but as we all know (even from this films’ depictions of probably once well meaning legacy politicians), Washington has a way of warping, souring, and disillusioning even the heartiest of souls.
But that lack of an ending also gives Knock Down the House something other similarly minded political advocacy films lack: a document that forces accountability. It’s a bold move to run on a platform built on profound changes and let someone film every step of their journey. There’s zero room for backpedalling. The lack of an ending proves that these brave women who’re challenging the establishment genuinely believe in what they’re doing. If they falter, people could easily point to Knock Down the House to show how they’ve failed to deliver. It’s something all to absent from politics these days: genuine, heartfelt transparency. That’s worth celebrating just as much as any primary victory.
Knock Down the House is currently available to stream on Netflix. It also opens on Monday, May 6, 2019 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
Check out the trailer for Knock Down the House: