On the 8th November 2016, the world as we knew it changed. Despite his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, having won the voting majority, Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America after winning the Electoral College. Trump’s surprise election sent shock waves around the world, and left an air of uncertainty surrounding America’s future.
For Rachel Lears, Trump’s election was only the beginning. Feeling the bubbling sense of urgency that only seemed to elevate with Trump’s election, Lears new that she needed to act. Her response? Knock Down the House.
Knock Down the House is an award-winning Netflix documentary that follows the campaigns of four eager working-class women, who aim to fight against their own party in order to create a more equal and representative Congress. One of the four campaigns followed is that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (also known by the acronym AOC), whose grassroots campaign managed to garner one of the biggest political upsets in American history as she won her seat in Congress against career politician Joseph Crawley, who had run as the Democratic candidate unopposed for fourteen years.
Knock Down the House highlights the work of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, whose aim is to diversify Congress. According to a study by the Women’s Donors Network, 70% of the US population are women and people or colour, with white men making up the remaining 30%. However, it is the white males that hold 2⁄3 of the political power within the United States. Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are attempting to flip the switch on this imbalance; “We want our democracy to work for Americans again as soon as possible.” and implore a fight for change in the political world.
From the very beginning, Lears does not shy away from showing us just what a monumental task each of them was undertaking. The very first shot of the film shows now-political icon Ocasio-Cortez getting ready for the days campaigning. She describes the parallels in how men and women running for congress are expected to present themselves, before expressing her fears on the real fears behind her challenge: “How do you prepare for something you don’t know is coming?”
Yet despite the fears that each candidate presents throughout the film, their willingness to confront the extraordinary obstacles in their path is awe-inspiring. Cori Bush, running for Congress in Missouri’s First District, refuses to compromise her morals in her fight to truly represent the people of her district:
“Being a woman of colour, our image is really scrutinised. You have to speak like this, you have to dress like this, I decided that ‘Yea, I don’t care.’ Basically, you deal with it. You know, people in my district, this is how we look. I’m going to serve and represent the people of my district.”Cori Bush
Similarly, Paula-Jean Swearengin doesn’t claim to be anything but West Virginian, and tells her public that West Virginians are anything but their stereotype; “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast, kicking and screaming.”
For Lears, her subjects were no accident. In her interview with Vanity Fair, she states that each of the candidates “made these very high-stakes connections between personal experience and policy, and made those the cornerstone of their campaigns.” Ocasio-Cortez worked double-shifts as a waitress in order to save her home from foreclosure amidst family and financial crises. As a black woman, Bush was compelled by the Ferguson Riots and its aftermath, which occurred as a result of the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by police. Amy Vilela, running for Congress in Nevada, felt obliged to campaign after her daughter died as a result of America’s broken healthcare system whilst Swarengin fought for the family and friends she’d seen die as a result of the effects of the coal mining industry.
Each woman’s campaign is filled with anger, fire and resistance as they all equally refuse to be ignored in the desperate race for change. As Swearengin herself said, “It’s time for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Let’s raise some hell and take our lives back,” a motto that seems to describe each of these campaigns perfectly. None of them running to prove a point, they are running to win. Even if their chances of success are ultimately are thin, they are giving everything they’ve got to change that and the lives of those around them.
Ultimately, however, the fight for change isn’t always easy. First, Bush loses to Lacy Clay in Missouri. Then, Swearingen loses her campaign in West Virginia before Vilela fails to make the change she so desperately wanted in Nevada. This news is a hit for the empowered tone of the documentary, as these women have given up almost everything in order to change America, and the fruits of their labour just cannot be seen. The loss hits especially hard for Vilela, whose feels her campaign has disappointed her late daughter. “For one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try.” Ocasio-Cortez consoles Vilela on the phone after her loss, her primary yet to come; the battle hasn’t been lost yet.
Though despite the loss felt by the other candidates, Knock Down the House ends on euphoric high. We’re able to see Ocasio-Cortez hug her partner as voting closes who tells her “We did the best we could,” uncertain of the outcome yet to come. But when Ocasio-Cortez runs into her party, everything changes. Swarmed by cameras, its live on television that she realises that she has done the impossible and won her primary.
The documentary ends with Ocasio-Cortez’s first trip to Washington D.C., now a Congresswoman. She shares with Lears a memory of her late father. “You know, this all belongs to us,” her father told her. “This is our government; it belongs to us. So all of this stuff is yours.” Having fought tooth and nail to represent her district in Congress, truly, we feel like Ocasio-Cortez; elated. The world is our oyster, as they say, and anything is possible. And if you fight hard enough, you can truly change the world.
In her discussion with Vanity Fair, Lears expresses her hopes for Knock Down the House. “We really hope that everyone who sees the film comes away with the sense that their voice matters in the democratic process, whatever their capacity is […] Anywhere from voting to feeling called to run for office.” All four women depicted in the documentary were nominated to run as a part of Brand New Congress/Justice Democrats. Not one of them had any political expertise, but they had passion and a demand for change. They are a waitress, a nurse, a bereaved mother and a coal miner’s daughter. They are the ordinary people who are changing the world, and they’re not done yet.
“AOC’s unlikely and historic victory is only the beginning of a new wave of politics in which everyday people can run against a machine, get outspent several times over, and still win elections. Now that we know what is possible, we won’t stop fighting for a seat at the table.” Cori Bush writes in her Refinery29 article, detailing what she learned during her unsuccessful run in 2018. She compels others go against the grain and #RunAsYouAre, stating that now is the time for the public to stand for election to help create a reflective democracy in the US.
Despite losing her 2018 campaign, Bush is undeterred. She will be running again in 2020 to represent Missouri’s 1st District in Congress, aiming to take down the established Clay family in her run for Congress. You can support her campaign here.
Along with Bush, Paula-Jean Swearengin announced in August that she will also be re-running in 2020 against fellow democrat Joe Menchin. Despite her loss, Swearengin still garnered 30% of the vote in her home state of West Virginia. Although her website is still under construction, you are still able to support and donate to her campaign.
Fellow Knock Down the House protagonist Amy Vilela is yet to announce whether or not she too will be taking the plunge and re-running against Steven Horsford, representative of Nevada’s 4th Congressional District. However, she has not remained silent in the time since her loss. Vilela, much like her fellow candidates, has a loud and proud presence on social media and is fighting alongside Democratic favourite Bernie Sanders for #MediCareForAll. You can follow her activism on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated that “For one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try,” not realising that she would be that one in a hundred. Achieving her goal of becoming a Congresswoman, she aims to retain her seat in 2020. You can support her campaign here.
Knock Down the House, however, only sheds light on a small section of the political fight. With the Congressional elections less than a year away, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress have already lined up an array of challengers for the inherently hegemonic system. From all over the US, representing an array on underrepresented congressional groups, Justice Democrats highlights all of its candidates that are primed and ready for battle. Both incumbent and challenging, you can see the full line up of Justice Democrats candidates on their website, with full details on who they are and how you can support them.
Ultimately, Knock Down the House refuses to let the harrowing political landscape deter the need for change, but instead enforces it to create a sense of urgency that is unfounded in politics. As a grassroots campaign itself, originally supported by Kickstarter funds, Lears’s documentary is equally as impactful as the campaigns she filmed. Through her film, she shows just how incredibly empowered women are and just how they crave change, not waiting for it to happen but instead enacting it themselves. Without this, many women would not know just how hard Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula-Jean Swarengin, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela and others fought to rebel against the hegemony, and continue to do so.
If you would like to nominate someone for Brand New Congress or Justice Democrats, you can do so on their websites. However, if the way you’d like to make change it through the simple act of voting, you can do so by registering online or via your states individual guidelines. Every vote matters, and maybe your vote will be the next one that helps to change history – and for the better.
by Georgia Davis
Georgia Davis is an actor and filmmaker who hails from the UK’s fictional region: The Midlands. She is currently in her final year of University studying Media and Performance, and is looking to work in television after she graduates. You’ll often find her shouting about The Office (US), crying over Nayeon from Twice and trying to be funny even though she isn’t.