Young, female, brown, carrying oh-so-terrifying socialist ideals of equality for the underrepresented, and not afraid to speak her mind loudly, U.S. House of Representatives politician and activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez currently has the Washington D.C. establishment quaking in their boots. Laugh if you want to, but there’s absolutely a reason a brand new, relatively inexperienced 29-year-old congresswoman—the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States—has found herself in the crosshairs of Fox News, The Daily Caller, and dozens of alt-right conservative voices. She’s absolutely dangerous to them because she represents a wakeup call to America and a voice of change they desperately want to suppress.
irector Rachel Lears‘ utterly prescient “Knock Down The House” thus strikes gold at the most opportune moment possible; not even the most powerful crystal ball could have foreseen what Ocasio-Cortez would transform into back when she started her campaign in May 2017. Lears’ portrait of the young aspiring advocate and three other women running for Congress is a formidably entertaining doc that can’t help but inspire. Intimate with incredible from-day-one access, this terrific documentary reveals not only the humble beginnings of a brassy grass-roots campaign and surging movement in American politics, but a hunger for the kind of authenticity that Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive friends radiate. When you articulate the country’s desperate need for norm-busting away from conventional political figures, it becomes easy to see why AOC, as she’s become known on social media, has become such a cultural presence.
When Ocasio-Cortez, a young, fearless Puerto Rican bartender from the Bronx, dared to go up against longstanding Democratic New York Rep. Joe Crowley—a seat he had has occupied for 20 years, unopposed for 14 of them—most people did not take her seriously and perhaps with good conventional reason. Filled with the support of super PACS and fellow establishment leaders, Crowley was part of an institutional order that seemingly could not be toppled. However, something unexpected happened on June 28th, 2018, a moment which shook America to its core and alarmed its all-too-comfortable political leaders. Tapping into a cultural desire for change—perhaps not unlike the same, underestimated phenomenon that elected Trump and turned Bernie Sanders into a political superstar—Ocasio-Cortez won.
Sensing something in the air (can she make my Oscar picks?) Lears predictively started following Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin, before their campaigns even started. Like many disgruntled Americans, the women, political outsiders not tapped into the incestuous DNA of Washington, are sick and tired of politicians’ empty promises.
With Ocasio-Cortez’ legendary upset win, Lears fell upon a once-in-a-lifetime story, so she shapes the body of her narrative in favor of AOC, which is wise considering this is what audiences obviously most want to see right now. 28 years old, Ocasio-Cortez works as a bartender, and with her family struggling to keep their home amidst a looming foreclosure, she works double-shifts to make ends meet. This runs concurrently with her decision to run for office. “This is not about electing me to Congress,” says Ocasio-Cortez, “This is about electing us to Congress,” she says, demonstrating her appeal with a few simple words.
Needing 1,000 signatures to qualify as opposition she gathers up 10,000 just in case, so the Crowley-appointed election board cannot deny her. The other three women just don’t have the same charisma or fairytale story, but there’s something effusive about all of them: Swearengin, a blue-collar worker from Coal City, West Virginia, St. Louis nurse and Ferguson activist Cori Bush and Vilela, a Nevada mom who lost a 22-year-old daughter after being turned away by a local hospital for lack of health insurance, all have their own stories to tell. They’re just as vital, but let’s face it, the Puerto Rican superstar is who you’re here to see.
From her cramped Bronx apartment to her scouring the streets, giving fliers to random pedestrians to vote, all the way to the jitters she feels just before the debate against Crowley, Lears’ camera is there front and center to capture all the now-iconic moments.
The film can also be seen as a tribute to women all around the country trying to make a difference, whilst at the same time making history.
Acting as an inspirational tribute to be heard, what makes the stylistically simple film so watchable is how it magnetically captures the real direction in which liberal progressivism is headed. “Knock Down The House” feels of this very moment; the absolute dissatisfaction with the status quo from the overlooked, the disillusioned and the marginalized. It’s this anger which ousted John Crowley from his comfortable, unchallenged 22-year reign, and “Knock Down The House” suggests there’s more of this transformative ire to come.
Much like Howard Beale’s call to arms in “Network” more than 43 years ago to this day, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Lears’ doc will make you want to scream your demands for change. Regardless of her politics, it’s difficult not to be charmed and charged by AOC and Lears’ film. Beyond Ocasio-Cortez and her magnetism, we may look back at “Knock Down the House” years from now as a nascent document of the beginnings of a groundswell in American politics. [B+]