Knock Down the House
My guard was up with Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House, a documentary that examines the grassroots campaigns of four women during the 2018 midterm elections. Documentaries of this sort may possess plenty of conviction, but they tend to be intolerably delusional about the obstacles placed before their subjects and simply resort to didactic platitudes to get their points across (see: RBG). Thankfully, Lears’ compact film avoids those pitfalls. Of the four women that Lears follows – Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearingen, and Amy Vivela –it’s AOC who makes the most indelible impression and the one that Lears centers much of the film on as she attempts to usurp the seat of Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley.
The four women began their campaigns as part of the Brand New Congress, a volunteer-based committee that select historically underrepresented men and women to run for congressional seats within their community. As such, the four develop something of a sorority, with Lears imparting the thought that one candidate’s success can lead to a wave of progressive victories. There’s a misguided sense of artificial drama created by Lears’ and her editor Robin Blotnick in how they frame AOC’s self-doubts and anxieties (the image of AOC receiving the news of her victory has already been etched into the public/cultural consciousness), but it’s the moments where we see her prepare for a debate, critique her opponent’s press material, or simply deliver an impassioned speech before an audience of only a handful that shed light on why she’s such a magnetic personality. For better or worse (mostly better), AOC ends up hijacking Knock Down the House. Lears, thankfully, avoids hagiography (AOC’s penchant for self-deprecation almost makes such an effort impossible) and instead indulges the pull that the Bronxite has on the narrative – she’s someone who, without a hint of cynicism, produces the all-too-unique quality of being genuinely inspiring.