It’s a shame the name A Star Is Born was already taken, because it would have been a good fit for the electrifying documentary Knock Down the House, on Netflix May 1. Over the course of the documentary’s brisk hour-and-a-half runtime, we watch Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez transform from an underdog canvassing the streets of Queens to the Congresswoman we know today, with bold ideas for progressive policy reform, witty retorts transmitted to her 4 million Twitter followers, and a signature side-bun and crimson lipstick.
After watching Knock Down the House, I get it: AOC’s lipstick is war paint.
By now, “AOC” is shorthand that signifies both Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez herself, and the changing Washington, D.C. that she represents. Ocasio-Cortez is part of a tide of progressive, outspoken women piercing the political sphere through unconventional routes. These are women who aren’t “supposed” to run for office. They’re not lawyers knighted by the establishment; not descendants of a liberal dynasty. But they are angry – angry enough to fight for the issues that matter to their communities, like pollution, racial injustice, and the healthcare system.
Filmmakers Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick set out capture that upwelling of political activity during the 2018 midterm elections, not necessarily memorialize Ocasio-Cortez’ comet-like trajectory as it unfolded in real time. Yet that’s exactly what occurred. The cameras for Knock Down the House are literally in the room where AOC happened. In a room in Kentucky, a group of young people working for Justice Democrats unanimously voted to move Ocasio-Cortez forward.
While the documentary allots Ocasio-Cortez the most screen time, it resists elevating her into the figure of the lone liberal savior. Ocasio-Cortez is flanked by the documentary’s three other subjects, fighting the same fight — albeit in different landscapes. As the camera switches from a strip mall in arid Nevada to the leafy roads of West Virginia to the streets of Missouri, viewers are reminded of how big the country is, how grand the scale of the fight. But if one wins, the candidates repeat often, they all win.
Knock Down the House stages four re-enactments of David and Goliath. On one side, establishment Democrats who purport to be taking on Trump, but are funded by big money and tied up in big money strings. On the other side, disruptors fostered by groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, that aim to simultaneously increase representation in Congress and take money out of politics.
So, meet our Davids: Cori Bush of Missouri, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
These women have directly experienced the adversity their opponents reference in speeches. Ocasio-Cortez grew up working class with a mother who cleaned houses to afford an SAT tutor for her daughter. Vilela believes her 21-year-old daughter’s death could’ve been prevented under a fairer healthcare system. Swearingen, a miner’s daughter, sees her neighbors and relatives dying prematurely from pollution. Bush watched as the town of Fergusen, only six miles away, turned into a war zone as protestors for racial justice clashed with police.
From hardship comes motivation. The women express their reasons for running – and that reason is not glory. It’s changing a broken system.
Though AOC is undoubtedly the documentary’s star, Knock Down the House also illuminates the network that supported her candidacy. In fact, for a liberal-minded viewer, that may be the most hopeful takeaway of Knock Down the House. The documentary indicates the existence of an infrastructure designed to place more progressive candidates in office. That infrastructure is currently gearing up for 2020.
If anything, filmmakers could have spent more time with these organizations – understanding how they coordinate their efforts and select candidates. Instead, one gets the sense Lears, like the viewer, was swept up into capturing Ocasio-Cortez’ near mythic rise.
Knock Down the House was there to capture the end results of their efforts. Undeniably, the documentary would’ve taken on a different tone had Ocasio-Cortez’ victory not acted as a happy ending.
When she wins the primary for New York’s 114th Congressional District, Ocasio-Cortez’s face melts into approximately 17 emotions in the span of two seconds. Oh — so that’s what it looks like to process the possible. After being underestimated at every corner, Ocasio-Cortez broke through.
Liberal viewers already inclined to adore AOC will blink back tears while reliving her triumph. But as this Guardian interview with Lears indicates, conservatives may be moved, too. That the documentary doesn’t glorify candidates, but rather just captures them, may actually allow it to transcend political boundaries.
This moment of triumph concludes the movie, but it’s not quite an ending. It’s an indication of a beginning, a reminder of what’s possible when politics is powered by the people.