Have you taken a look at Netflix’s latest documentary? Here’s how Ocasio-Cortez and other three fearless women challenged the establishment in the 2018 race for Congress.
2018 saw a record number of women, people of color and political outsiders making changes in Congress and redefining the American political landscape. This record included a lot of firsts such as the first Native American woman elected to Congress, the first Muslim woman to be elected to the House of Representatives and the youngest-ever female member of the House at age twenty-nine, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
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A year ago I was waitressing in a restaurant while organizing my community. In a time and place where we had been burned by so many politicians, and had grown deservedly cynical of the sad, familiar cycle of campaign promises and governance excuses, I was asking them, just once, to believe. . It was really hard, because how do you make that case? How to ask someone whose trust has been violated over and over to believe you? To believe in the movement for justice and economic dignity? . You show up. You give unconditionally. You show up when no one is looking and the cameras are off. You offer support when it’s risky, but necessary. You do it over and over again, without a need for recognition or expectation that you are “owed” something for doing the right thing. You just… engage in the act of loving your community. . Never in my wildest dreams did I think that those late nights on the 6 & 7 trains would lead to this. All this attention gives me a lot of anxiety (my staff fought to get me to agree to this cover, as I was arguing against it), and still doesn’t feel quite real, which maybe is why I remain comfortable taking risks, which maybe is a good thing. . I believe in an America where all things are possible. Where a basic, dignified life isn’t a dream, but a norm. . That’s why I got up then, and it’s why I get up now. Because my story shouldn’t be a rare one. Because our collective potential as a nation can be unlocked when we’re not so consumed with worry about how we’re going to secure our most basic needs, like a doctor’s visit or an affordable place to live.
Knock Down the House goes behind the scenes of this political race and shows us how such success was achieved. After the 2016 presidential election, director Rachel Lears got in touch with two progressive groups (Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats) that were working behind the 2018 midterms with one purpose; to achieve more diversity in political representation.
Among the various selected competitors, Lears chose to focus on the campaigns of four female Democratic candidates with very different backgrounds and seemingly invincible opponents; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin, Cori Bush and Amy Vilela.
The scene is set in New York, January 2018. We follow Cortez into the bar where she works as a waitress and bartender. Later, Cortez claims that “everyday Americans deserve to be represented by everyday Americans.” But we soon figure out that she is anything but ordinary. As she herself says, she is up 18 hours a day working non-stop with a curriculum that is extraordinary. While working at the bar to help her mother fight the foreclosure of their home after her father’s death, she also graduated from Boston University where she studied International Relations. She has served as an intern in the office of Ted Kennedy with a focus on foreign affairs and immigration issues — later working as an educational director. She also launched Brook Avenue Press, a publishing firm and worked as lead educational strategist at GAGEis, Inc. and for the nonprofit National Hispanic Institute. Finally, in the 2016 elections, Cortez was an organizer for Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
Soon, Cortez finds herself up against Congressman Joe Crowley, the 4th most powerful Democrat in Congress who has not had a primary challenge in 14 years. Cortez never falters. She can both beat Crowley in a debate with eloquence and determination and hand out leaflets with humility on the streets of the Bronx. She is inspiring even when we see her talking to her niece, “For every 10 rejections you get one acceptance and that’s how you win everything.”
Similarly, the other women in the race have nothing to lose.
Paula Jean Swearengin is running for Senate in West Virginia where her community has paid the consequence of fracking. A coal miner’s daughter, she goes up against Jo Manchin who has earned millions in assets from coal companies. During a very emotional moment of the documentary, we follow Swearengin as she drives around West Virginia pointing out the houses of her friends and neighbours that have suffered or died from the environmental effects of the coal industry.
Cori Bush is a nurse running for Congress in Missouri. She was drawn into the streets of Ferguson when unarmed black teen Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in 2014.
Finally, Amy Vilela, a single mother from Las Vegas is fighting against America’s broken healthcare system after her 22-year-old daughter died of pulmonary embolism because she was not given the tests she required.
Besides representing the personal struggles of each of these women, Knock Down the House shows us what it means to run a campaign with neither corporate money or political experience — from the door to door knocking, to the collection of signatures to get on the ballot. All things that Cortez and the other candidates do with ease, and that we cannot picture their opponents doing. Yet, the core message of the documentary comes to the fore during one of the many scenes filmed backstage when Swearengin’s assistant calms her down before she goes on stage to deliver her speech — “words don’t matter so much (right now), as you. You’re up there to convey your emotions.”
Though this sentence may seem cliché, it reverses the stigma that women, especially in politics, should not show emotion in order to be suited to hold a position of leadership. Knock Down the House debunks the myth. Aware that passion and emotion are these women’s strength, it foregrounds them while making them the winning ingredients for victory.
Another core subject of Lears’s documentary is the perception of women’s public images. From the very beginning when Cortez talks about “how you are going to present yourself to the world”, to Bush talking about how others perceive her blackness, we see that all four of these candidates are well aware that their public personas will be scrutinized and distorted — but they pay no mind to it. Before meeting Crowley, Cortez says: “the whole time he’s going to tell me I can’t do it. But I am experienced, mature and brave enough to do it.”
While the other three women eventually lose the race, Cortez brings home a tremendous victory and proves that even without corporate money, a different model of politics and leadership can be successful.
The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is now on Netflix.