The meteoric rise of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is sometimes dismissed—by both Republicans and centrist Democrats, and almost convincingly—with the argument that she represents a single, very liberal district in New York. Therefore, the argument goes, her election shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a broader sea change within the Democratic party, and the amount of attention she’s garnered is unwarranted. Rachel Lears’s Knock Down the House is a rebuttal to this position, placing Ocasio Cortez’s victory, in what right-wingers will surely style as a communist conspiracy, within a nationwide movement to take down the old political guard, spearheaded by the group Justice Democrats.
For Ocasio Cortez and the three other women at the center of the documentary—Paula Jean Swearingen of West Virginia, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Amy Vilela of Nevada—the 2016 midterm elections weren’t just a referendum on Trump, but on the politics that preceded him: the cozy relationships with big business enjoyed by established members of both parties in Washington. Knock Down the House follows each woman as she challenges a male incumbent who hasn’t seen a serious Democratic primary challenger in years or even decades. As the film opens, Ocasio Cortez’s opponent, Jim Crowley, is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, and at the outset of her campaign, the very notion of challenging him seems out of the question to many of the residents of New York’s 14th District, as the film emphasizes.
A vital insight at the root of Lears’s film, and played out in Ocasio Cortez’s campaign against Crowley, is that Trump isn’t the alpha and omega of the rot in American politics. In fact, Trump has given corporate Democrats an easy way out, a scowling nemesis against which to contrast their wishy-washy politics of good feels and vague promises. As Ocasio Cortez points out in an extemporaneous rant in her living room, while her campaign’s leaflets efficiently outline her positions and provide the date of the primary, Crowley’s mailers are massive, folded brochures dominated by glossy photos of his face and featuring almost no information on policy, or even on how to vote for him. The documentary paints Crowley, who after his loss would join a corporate lobbying firm, as running solely on his ostensible opposition to Trump rather than any definable policy proposals. He also proves to be so confident he owns the district that he sends ill-informed proxies to debate Ocasio Cortez on his behalf.
Just as she is in current Democratic politics, Ocasio Cortez is the dominant force in this documentary; her race is ultimately the only successful one in Knock Down the House, and as everyone watching knows, she would ultimately become a national figure because of her surprising victory. It might even make sense without this extra-textual knowledge that Ocasio Cortez should emerge as the documentary’s focus: She appears to be the most natural politician of the group, with her moral clarity, evident intelligence, and telegenic charisma. Her story is also achingly human, her triumph turning tearful when she thinks of her father, who, having passed away when she was still in college, isn’t around to see her victory.
But then, Ocasio Cortez is the most humanized because the film humanizes her the most, giving her the most opportunity not only to articulate her positions, but to connect them to her personal narrative. Each of the women outlines her personal motivations for mounting her primary challenge: Swearingen has watched the coal industry poison her community for decades; Vilela lost a daughter because a hospital turned her away for lacking insurance; and Cori Bush is a Ferguson, Missouri resident running in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. But while Swearingen also stands out as a morally righteous firebrand, she and the others are given far less screen time than the young political superstar we all already know.
The film thereby strikes a triumphant note—as Ocasio Cortez herself points out midway through her campaign, it may have always been the case that many would have to fail in order for one to succeed—but one has to wonder if this unapologetically tendential film wouldn’t have better served its movement if it spent more time foregrounding the other women who, hopefully, will have other opportunities to win in the future. Ocasio Cortez’s catapult from bartender to congresswoman is inspiring, and her reaction to her surprise win, as captured in Knock Down the House, is affecting, but it’s worth pondering whether, at this point, she’s the one among these women who most needs her profile raised—and to what degree, in distributing this documentary, Netflix is cynically glomming onto her popularity.
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