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KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE (2019) review

May 1, 2019

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produced by: Robin Blotnick, Sarah Olsen and Rachel Lears
directed by: Rachel Lears
rated: PG (for thematic elements, language and brief smoking)
runtime: 86 min.
U.S. release date: May 1, 2019 (Netflix)

 

People will dismiss “Knock Down the House” thinking it as some kind of hagiographic documentary on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and they’d be wrong. While the Netflix film from director Rachel Lears, which debuted at Sundance back in January where it won two audience awards, does indeed include the U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, it’s in no way solely about her. Instead, it’s about three liberal American women like her who, despite the odds stacked against them, ran the historic 2018 midterm election that wound up changing the look of the House of Representatives in a historic manner. On the heels of last year’s Oscar nominee “RBG”, here is an uplifting and inspiring documentary that spotlights more trailblazing women in politics and considering that’s typically a rare subject, here is a film that shouldn’t be dismissed.

Lears knows the draw here will undoubtedly be the confident and intelligent 28-year-old AOC, so the director goes behind the persona that’s presented to viewers 24/7. We’re essentially given a behind-the-scenes ride along on her much-publicized path to her eventual win. There’s invaluable footage of her waitressing at the neighborhood taco joint she used to be employed at, along with clips of her going door-to-door to introduce herself to whoever will listen as voting day looms. She has the support of her family, friends and her boyfriend, Riley Roberts, but it’s AOC’s undying optimism and fiery passion that makes her easy to follow.

 

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The film offers the most insight as to what AOC is made out of during the moments when we see her six-month-long campaign in action and what we glean from how she approaches her opponent Rep. John Crowley. Here’s an old white dude who’s served a ten-year term despite not even residing in the district he represents (much less the state of New York) and it’s understandably invigorating to see a young woman-of-color respond and debate with the kind of person we typically see inhabit such a position. There’s plenty out there who scoff at AOC, but it’s hard to disregard her in “Knock Down the House”, where we find her emotionally recalling how her late father inspired and supported her or when we see her walk into a bar on election night where she learns of her big win. Due to her celebrity, it’s understandable how the documentary leans heavily on the Bronx-bred candidate, yet what makes up for that unevenness is how vulnerable and relatable she comes across.

“Knock Down the House” is at its best when shining a light on the three other female candidates who are running for office, reminding viewers that there are others like AOC out there who are determined to go up against a system that is manipulated by lobbyists and special interests. We meet social and environmental activist-turned-politician Paula Jean Swearengin, who sets out to run against Joe Manchin for the West Virginia Senate, Cori Bush who’s up against Lacy Clay in the Missouri 1st Congressional District, and progressive Amy Vilela, who aims to defeat Steve Horsford in the Nevada 4th district. The more time we spend with these women and their campaign teams, the more we see what an uphill battle they have against the establishment (aka The Man). Like AOC, these woman are concerned for their communities, their environment and the well-being of the working class, and it’s hard not to root for them in their respective David and Goliath situations, but it become frustratingly clear that they don’t have the support that AOC has behind her.

Throughout the documentary, Lears does a great of balancing an informative and inspirational tone while capturing a specific zeitgeist in which a portion of the Democratic party takes on a more progressive vision for America. However, the film could’ve benefitted from focusing a bit more on the community organizations that support these candidates. Such as the Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee that supports a new generation of leaders in Congress, as well as the Brand New Congress which is composed of former staffers and supporters of the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign whose goal is to elect hundreds of new congressional representatives in line with the campaign’s political platform, backing both Swearengin and AOC. It would seem there could easily be a documentary on these two committees, but it’s understandable why there’s a focus on these four hard-working women.

 

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Within the framework of insurgents versus the establishment, it’s easy to understand why Ocasio-Cortez scares the hell out of the establishment, both on the left and the right. She’s playing a 21st century game and knows how to speak directly to working class voters. If Ocasio-Cortez represents the future (and Knock Down the House thinks that she does), that’s horrifying for the political establishment that is comfortable with the game where everyone is bought and paid for by special interests. Once you see Knock Down the House, it makes total sense why establishment Democrats dismiss her, and Republicans call her a socialist. I don’t know if Ocasio-Cortez is a force to be reckoned with as a congresswoman (the clips of her taking down people in congressional hearings is promising) because it’s too early to tell. But judging Ocasio-Cortez on her campaigning, I pity any challenger who tries to take her on.

“Knock Down the House” can serve as an introduction to those unfamiliar with these four candidates and an awakening for those unaware of the need to shake things up and buck the system. The journey they embark on is arduous and at times quite frustrating, but one it’s hard not to leave such a viewing experience without a good deal of respect and admiration for the courage and determination on display here.

 

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RATING: ***

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