In ‘Knock Down the House,’ the Rise of an AOC-Led Storm

Early scenes in Rachel Lears’ documentary “Knock Down the House” take place far away from the halls of power. At a New York taco and tequila bar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is filling ice buckets in the basement. 

It’s six months before the primary that turned Ocasio-Cortez into a liberal phenomenon. Then trailing far behind in the polls, few expected her to win the race for New York’s 14th district and unseat incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, who had served for two decades and hadn’t faced a primary challenger in 14 years. 

“If I were, like, a normal, rational person, I would have dropped out of this race a long time ago,” she says riding an elevator with sanitary gloves on her hands. 

“Knock Down the House,” which premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, is, in movie lingo, an origin story. But while it has come to be known as “the AOC documentary,” it captures a wider political movement. Shot over two years in the lead-up to the 2018 elections, it follows four progressive insurgent candidates, all women, running grassroots campaigns: the Bronx-born Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia. 

One of them – you might have heard – won. 

“They were all considered long shots. We were looking for people that would be very compelling to watch, no matter what happened,” Lears said in an interview. “We were very interested in races that would involve political machines and very entrenched power structures. We were interested in exploring the nature of power in the United States.”

The attention surrounding Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, has raised the profile of “Knock Down the House.” It won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, where Netflix acquired it for $10 million – the biggest documentary sale ever at the festival. 

And given the intense partisan divisions around Ocasio-Cortez, “Knock Down the House” has also been used against the congresswoman by some. The filmmakers have had to combat falsehoods that Ocasio-Cortez profited from the Netflix sale (documentary subjects generally aren’t paid). Still, Ocasio-Cortez has said she’s been approached on the House floor about how much she made from the film. 

​On Monday, Kellyanne Conway criticized Ocasio-Cortez on Fox News’ “Hannity” for promoting “Knock Down the House” on Twitter the day after the Sri Lanka Easter bombings. (Ocasio-Cortez responded that Conway was “using this as an excuse to stoke suspicion around my Christianity.”)

“There is a lot of speculation about what the film is,” said Lears. “I look forward to it being out there and people can decide for themselves.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who declined to comment for this article, was unable to attend the film’s Sundance premiere in January, citing complications due to the government shutdown. 

“Some might be assuming that this is her personal project, and that’s not true at all,” said Lears. “We had complete editorial independence.”

Those expecting a glossy political advertisement may be surprised to find something far more personal in “Knock Down the House.” The main thrust of the film is capturing the struggles of working-class women challenging the establishment, navigating the often painful process of stepping into public life and battling far larger, and far better bankrolled political machines.

The candidates are backed by the political action committees Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, groups that were Lears’ gateway to the four candidates. But the candidates are inexperienced political outsiders motivated to run by personal experience. Bush is a nurse and ordained pastor. Swearengin comes from a long line of coal miners, several of whom died from black lung disease.

​Swearengin unsuccessfully ran against Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat and defender of the coal industry in West Virginia. In the documentary Swearengin summarizes her opposition: “If another country came in here, blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we’d go to war. But industry can.” 

Vilela, a Nevada businesswoman, entered politics after the death of her daughter, Shalynne. She died at age 22 of a massive pulmonary embolism weeks after being turned away from an ER for lacking insurance. Running on a platform of universal health care, Vilela lost to Democrat Steven Horsford. 

“People right now don’t understand the basis of the film, or the basis of why we ran,” said Vilela. “This movie is about what is to go against the system and it’s not just a Democrat thing. It’s across party lines. It’s money in politics.”

One of the film’s most vivid moments comes when a devastated Vilela, faced with election day tallies that eliminate her long-odds bid, falls to her knees and bursts into tears.

“I was like: And now more people will die,” said Vilela. “And I couldn’t save them like I couldn’t save my daughter.” 

Vilela said she will run for office again. And she guarantees Republicans will watch “Knock Down the House.” 

“People are going to secretly go and watch this movie. They’re ranting about it online. They’re not going to be able to resist,” she said. “I think it will humanize what we’re doing. Hopefully, we won’t be so scary to them, and they’ll understand where we’re coming from.”

Lears was there to document a happier election night for Ocasio-Cortez, and the documentary’s final moments track the Congresswoman’s giddy arrival in Washington D.C. But, to her, “Knock Down the House” isn’t about winning. 

“It’s a testament to the value of trying to be part of the democratic process,” said Lears, “no matter what the outcome.” 

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