On May 1, Netflix released Knock Down the House, a documentary from Rachel Lears that follows the congressional campaigns of four democratic female candidates.
They include West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin, Amy Vilela of Las Vegas, Cori Bush of St. Louis, Missouri, and– at the time a political unknown — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
These women were all longshots and political outsiders. Yet the film makes the argument that just being a women makes you a political outsider. There are infinitely stricter rules that apply to women, from the amount you smile to the makeup and clothes you wear.
The film shows AOC preparing for her bartending shift. Bush tells us she is a nurse and ordained pastor who did not expect to find herself in activism until the Black Lives Matter showed up at her doorstep. Vilela a single mother, tells a constituent she is “not a career politician.” And Swearengin describes herself to a crowd as a “coal miner’s daughter.”
Another thing the women have in common? They all mounted grassroots campaigns against entrenched Democrats. Bush’s opponent, Lacy Clay, along with his father, had represented the St. Louis district since 1969.
The film devotes the lion’s share to AOC’s race against her opponent, Joe Crowley, who had not been challenged in a primary for 14 years. Additionally, he was known as “The Boss” in Queens. He was also the fourth most-powerful Democrat in Congress.
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(Pt 2) Vulnerability is something I am proud of. In many ways, I see vulnerability as a coat of arms. A shield. After all, if we are unafraid to cry, to acknowledge our mistakes, to fall down and get back up, to offer a vision so ambitious that it makes the short-sighted laugh… if we are brave enough to be human in front of the whole world, then what can our detractors really do? What do we have to be afraid of when we lift our own veil? The answer is nothing. Nothing at all. . I am immensely proud of the women who made this film. It’s incredibly raw and explosively powerful – not because we are special, but because we aren’t. Because if we can do it, so can you.
At the beginning of the film, AOC says with a laugh,
“If I were a rational person, I would’ve dropped out of this race a long time ago.”
The film demonstrates how, at first, Crowley did not take AOC seriously. At a forum where the two were meant to debate, Crowley did not even bother to show up.
Instead, he sent an ill-prepared surrogate in his place. By the time they debated in person as the election neared, Lears showed Crowley nervously rolling up his sleeves as AOC delivered a rousing response. This is a woman — a person– to reckon with.
The women also share their heart-breaking backstories. AOC describes how her dad, who “knew [her] soul better than anybody in this world,” passed away while she was in college.
Vilela’s story especially struck a chord. She describes how she lost her daughter because the hospital would not provide her with potentially life-saving tests as she could not show proof of insurance.
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A year ago I was waitressing in a restaurant while organizing my community. In a time and place where we had been burned by so many politicians, and had grown deservedly cynical of the sad, familiar cycle of campaign promises and governance excuses, I was asking them, just once, to believe. . It was really hard, because how do you make that case? How to ask someone whose trust has been violated over and over to believe you? To believe in the movement for justice and economic dignity? . You show up. You give unconditionally. You show up when no one is looking and the cameras are off. You offer support when it’s risky, but necessary. You do it over and over again, without a need for recognition or expectation that you are “owed” something for doing the right thing. You just… engage in the act of loving your community. . Never in my wildest dreams did I think that those late nights on the 6 & 7 trains would lead to this. All this attention gives me a lot of anxiety (my staff fought to get me to agree to this cover, as I was arguing against it), and still doesn’t feel quite real, which maybe is why I remain comfortable taking risks, which maybe is a good thing. . I believe in an America where all things are possible. Where a basic, dignified life isn’t a dream, but a norm. . That’s why I got up then, and it’s why I get up now. Because my story shouldn’t be a rare one. Because our collective potential as a nation can be unlocked when we’re not so consumed with worry about how we’re going to secure our most basic needs, like a doctor’s visit or an affordable place to live.
Sitting with her other daughter, Vilela says, as her voice breaks,
“It’s not just us. It’s thirty thousand families a year.”
Vilela, a champion of Medicare for all, says she will never stop fighting. She also vows that her daughter’s death wasn’t in vain.
Out of the four women, only AOC is successful in her quest to unseat her opponent. Still, the film shows that amidst of the heart-breaking losses — we can hear Vilela’s sobs as the results roll in — change can happen. As AOC states, in an undeniably shocking moment after winning, we can meet the machine with a movement.
And even though I already knew how AOC’s primary election went, I shed a few tears, too.