Director: Rachel Lears
Cast: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela
Watch Knock Down the House online in the UK: Netflix UK
“This land is your land,” declare Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings over the end credits of Knock Down the House, Netflix’s new documentary about politics, and four people refusing to leave it to those already in power. It’s an inspiring film, an empowering watch, and packs as much attitude and radical passion as Jones’ cover of Woody Guthrie’s subversive folk song.
The four people in question decide to run for Congress in the 2018 US elections, because they don’t feel represented or valued by the system in place. They’re all Democrats, they’re all women, and they all mean serious business. Director Rachel Lears follows them throughout their campaigns, sharing a low budget and a determination with each one – and that shared sense of energy, support and resolve to make a difference is infectious, electrifying stuff. (It’s no coincidence that Lears began work on the film the day after Donald Trump was elected.)
In West Virginia, we meet Paula Jean Swearengin, who takes on the coal industry, which has cost the lives of many in the area. In Missouri, we meet Cori Bush, a nurse and pastor who lives just down the road from Ferguson and joined in the 2014 protests. And in Nevada, we meet Amy Vilela, a successful company woman who leaves her career behind after the death of her daughter, who was refused hospital treatment due to having no proof of insurance.
The main focus, though, goes to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who juggles a bar job with her fledgling campaign, and knocking on doors with the same conviction with which she heaves ice during her night shifts. The access Lears has to each campaign and contender is remarkable, and she backs it up by refusing to cut to cliched vox pops every five seconds or statistical charts, instead letting each person convey their own story in their own words. As a result, the trust and intimacy that’s built up between the filmmaker and her subjects pays off time and time again, allowing us to see unfiltered the lows as well as the highs of running for Congress. “For every 10 rejections, you get one acceptance,” Ocasio-Cortez tells her niece, as they canvas in the streets, an observation that will go on to prove true by the end credits.
Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to popularity is, in itself, thrilling to witness, as members of the public are visibly galvanised by the idea of a politician willing to listen to them and their concerns – a marked contrast to her rival, Joe Crowley, who doesn’t even turn up himself to their first debate. Later, we see her picking apart his campaign leaflet, a flyer that’s all about him, and nothing about his policies to change the lives of those in his state. Throughout, she remains that grounded and focused on doing the right thing, while still worrying about the small challenges, like how her voice sounds when she’s nervous.
But while you might wish the other three candidates got more of a look in, Lears and her editor (and co-writer) Robin Blotnick deftly weave a tapestry of the things they have in common: they’re all facing male incumbents, they all refuse PAC donations from corporations, they all talk about how female candidates are scrutinised over their appearance more than men (who, in a depressingly wry aside from Ocasio-Cortez, have two choices of either suits or slacks with their shirt sleeves rolled up). That cumulative weight and recognisable hurdle in all of their paths makes seeing the end results come in all the more satisfying, as the hope of change lingers palpably in the air. The documentary, though, tellingly ends on a quieter, personal note, as Ocasio-Cortez looks at Capital Hill and recalls her father telling her that everything there belongs to them as much as anyone else. Knock Down the House is stirring proof that, no matter who’s at the top of the political ladder, this land is being taken back, piece by piece.
Knock Down the House is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.