READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Becomes a Bona Fide Movie Star in Netflix’s ‘Knock Down the House’
The Netflix doc, premiering May 1, won the Festival Favorite award at Sundance and was acquired for $10 million. And if you thought AOC was big before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Knock Down the House is at once an intimate portrait of four female candidates and a compelling look at the political big picture. The film, which is directed by Rachel Lears and set to premiere on Netflix on May 1, chronicles outsider candidates during the 2018 midterm elections. Near the opening of the doc, confessional-style videos of the film’s stars—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Paula Jean Swearengin and Cori Bush—flood the screen, only to be joined by more and more videos from candidates across the country. These candidates, who each have intensely personal reasons for suspending their lives to run for office, quickly blur into a movement far bigger than one race or cult of personality.
The four women at the heart of the film are running against powerful incumbents. They campaign on issues like healthcare for all and raising the minimum wage, on fighting for working-class families and providing drinkable water and breathable air to their would-be constituents. Collectively, they’re waging war against political insiders who seem more interested in pleasing wealthy corporations than representing their own constituents; a system of entrenched power that makes it near impossible for “average” voters to see a candidate like themselves on the ballot, let alone in office. All four candidates provide a template on how to run for office—without taking corporate or lobbyist money—on issues that connect with their communities.
One of them, Ocasio-Cortez, proves that this strategy can win.
Knock Down the House is also blissfully Trump-light, recognizing that our country’s political dysfunction goes far deeper than our current president. In a memorable scene, Ocasio-Cortez picks apart her opponent Joe Crowley’s mailer. The flyer, which the powerful Democrat sent out to voters, mentions “Trump three times, commitments zero times.” Ocasio-Cortez notes that the mailer illustrates Crowley’s “insider” status, favoring empty rhetoric over actionables.
Ocasio-Cortez is the undeniable star of the film. Her story gets the most screen time—and for good reason. It’s fascinating to watch the early days of her campaign, as the would-be congresswoman who’s now a household name juggles small living room fundraisers with her bartending day job. Knock Down the House follows her through the restaurant kitchen and on the subway, in her apartment and campaigning on the streets. In bits and pieces, we learn more about the candidate soon to be known as AOC.
For one, she never saw herself running for office. Ocasio-Cortez, Vilela, Swearengin and Bush were all recruited by political action committees Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats. The organizations aim to eke out a new path to political office, disrupting the political status quo by encouraging everyday Americans to run.
Ocasio-Cortez, who was nominated by her brother, is attuned to the needs of her community and how they’ve been failed by their current representatives. She explains that she started waitressing because her family was on the verge of losing their home, and she had student loans to answer to. “You just do your best to survive,” she continues. “That’s been the reality for so many people in this country… they feel like no one’s fighting for them.”
In addition to charting Ocasio-Cortez’s historic campaign, the documentary traces a personal arc as she gains confidence in her message and her candidacy. At first, Ocasio-Cortez is fighting an uphill battle, and doesn’t seem quite convinced that she’s the person to do it. Knock Down the House doesn’t sugarcoat just how hard it is to come up against a Democratic powerhouse like Joe Crowley. No established New York Democrat would risk upsetting Crowley, who hasn’t faced a primary challenger in 14 years. Just to get on the ballot, Ocasio-Cortez explains, they’ll need to collect far more than the 1,250 signatures that are technically required. “Joe Crowley has appointed every board of elections judge,” she sighs. “Because we’re challenging the boss, we need to collect 10,000 signatures.”
Ocasio-Cortez says that the most common question she gets when campaigning is “why you?” “Literally anybody could,” she explains, “because the alternative is no one.” This sentiment is perfectly visualized during an early community debate where Crowley sends a representative in his stead. Ocasio-Cortez turns this obvious slight to her advantage, absolutely obliterating her no-show opponent. You can feel the crowd turning against Crowley; as his surrogate demurs on yet another question, saying Crowley would need to be present to fully explain his position, audience members shout out “he’s not here.” At the end of the debate, Ocasio-Cortez hammers home that “for once, we have a choice.” The crowd seems ready for one. Afterwards, she stays behind to take more questions and listen to the concerns of Crowley’s constituents.
As enthusiasm for AOC continues to rise, with people across the country taking notice, Crowley finally deigns to debate Ocasio-Cortez. Pre-debate footage offers a fascinating, intimate window into Ocasio-Cortez’s psyche, as she hypes herself up—to herself—as a formidable opponent. “I need to take up space,” she says, stretching her arms out wide in her small apartment. “This whole time, he’s going to tell me I can’t do this. He’s gonna tell me I’m small, I’m little, I’m young, I’m inexperienced,” she recites. But she’s ready. “I am debating on behalf of the movement tonight. This is not about electing me to Congress, this is about electing us to Congress.”
Throughout the film, director Rachel Lears illustrates how the four candidates lift each other up. They live geographically disparate lives and campaign on a number of different key issues. Cori Bush is a registered nurse and ordained pastor running for Congress in Missouri, in “the district where Mike Brown was murdered.” She’s running in a place that has been represented by one single family since 1969. In Las Vegas, Amy Vilela is campaigning to fix a broken health-care system. Vilela’s 22-year-old daughter Shalynne went to the ER in pain and couldn’t provide proof of insurance. After she was discharged, she passed away from a pulmonary embolism. “I’m not going to allow my daughter to have died for nothing,” Vilela explains. And in West Virginia, Paula Jean Swearengin, who comes from a long line of coal miners, is running against a senator who takes big money from the coal industry and fights against its “demonization” in Washington. “If another country came in here, blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we’d go to war—but industry can,” Swearengin intones.
There’s a palpable sense of solidarity between these struggles. In an early meet-up for potential candidates, Ocasio-Cortez exclaims “our future is in this room.” At a later convening of the “outsider” candidates, Swearengin urges, “Let’s take our lives back.”
Together, these candidates are an even stronger threat, and career politicians start to take notice. In the late stages of the campaign, a member of Vilela’s team points out that their opponent has received money from Joe Crowley, AOC’s incumbent. “If Amy wins against the establishment Dem,” they wryly note, “things look a little more hopeful for the scrappy fighter from the Bronx.” After Vilela loses her election, she tells Ocasio-Cortez on the phone that “some of us have to get through.” “For one of us to make it through, a hundred of us need to try,” Ocasio-Cortez replies.
The final act of the documentary is dedicated to Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected triumph. Even as her campaign gained steam, few thought she could actually unseat Crowley. We watch Ocasio-Cortez vote, flanked by her partner and mother. It’s an emotional scene; as Ocasio-Cortez previously made clear, “It will never be the same after Tuesday, no matter what the outcome.” A vulnerable AOC explains that she’s worried about letting down the volunteers and community members who rallied around her, saying, “I get scared of the cynicism that could result from people really believing in something, and then it not working out.”
In the car to her election-night party, Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t want to hear any results—and then she sees press flocking to the venue. Running into the crowded space, she quickly breaks out into an expression of pure disbelief. First she’s in the lead, and then she’s won the race. People are shouting, hugging, and crying. Ocasio-Cortez somehow manages to stay on message, saying, “We met a machine with a movement.”
But the documentary doesn’t end at the victory party. Instead, it closes on a quiet moment five days later, as Ocasio-Cortez and her partner visit D.C. and survey her future. Silently crying, Ocasio-Cortez tells the camera about a trip she and her late father took to the Capitol Building when she was young. “He pointed at everything, and he said, you know, this all belongs to us. This is our government, it belongs to us, so all of this stuff is yours.”