Please note that my review may include some spoilers. In terms of my recommendations, I give this documentary a 10/10– thus a “must see.”
On March 6th I attended a viewing of “Knock Down the House” as part of the Miami Film Festival (#MFF) at Spotlight Cinema in Downtown Miami. Knock Down the House is a documentary written and directed by Rachel Lears, which follows the 2018 primary campaigns of four working class women who present challenges to politicians benefiting from the unfair structure of money in politics within their districts/state. Those women are Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin, and Amy Vilela all three of whom were backed by progressive organizations like Justice Democrats.
The documentary itself feels very authentic and raw. Not only does the documentary present itself as normal recording of people’s lives and day to day in real time (e.g. not rehearsed and so actual emotions are present), but it also does so in a way that still sends a strong message across. That message is that these women, just like you and me, are tired and frustrated at a system that is failing them, us, and our society as a whole. To describe what I’m trying to say, I will note this: You cannot go in and expect to watch this documentary without deeply empathizing with all of the women featured. There were three (maybe four) points in the documentary where I actually shed tears in the theatre– particularly at how unfair life is.
Cori Bush ran for Missouri’s 1st District in 2018 and sadly lost by less than 30,000 votes against a politician whose family has had a stronghold on the district since the 1990s. As a nurse and a pastor, what pushed Cori to act was the events that took place in Ferguson Missouri and the response to those events, by the politicians and police in Missouri. As a nurse, she initially showed up to the protests to offer help in any way that she can. From there, she started asking deeper questions about how her community can best be helped and served, and whether or not they were receiving the support or help that they needed. This pushed her to run. As a black woman, Cori notes in the documentary that image will be everything– in terms of how she’s perceived by others– as she goes up against a wealthy and politically influential black male. One of the biggest struggles for her, appeared to be name recognition due to the long standing power of her opponent, Lacy Clay. One male that she approaches while campaigning for herself, notes that people just tick off Clay at election time, without thinking.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran for New York’s 14th congressional district (representing some of Queens and the Bronx) and won by over 4,000 votes against a Democratic politician that was expected to be the next speaker of the house presumably. As a college graduate and waitress, Alexandria found herself having to both help her family and support herself, after her father unexpectedly passed away while she was in college. Struggling to make ends meet in New York and knowing how many other people were too, is why she decided to run. Of all of the women featured in the film– whether intentionally or not intentionally– Alexandria is documented the most. She’s shown preparing for her shifts in the documentary and campaigning for herself both after and before shifts, with the help of her partner, niece, and other family and friends. She recognizes that name recognition will be everything and she attends town halls, meetings, and speaks with those in the community that have all been neglected by Joe Crowley who has not been challenged at all in over a decade. Throughout the film, it is clear that the constituents in this district have actual grievances without any real ability to get into contact with their representative. You can see from the people that just by showing up, Alexandria is seen as trying to help them share these grievances.
Paula Jean Swearengin
Paula Jean Swearengin ran for the senate in West Virginia and devastatingly lost by over 64,000 votes against a Democratic politician whose been active in West Virginia’s politics since the 1980s and the Senator of West Virginia for almost a decade. Paula is an activist and single mother who has lost family members and community members from cancer and black lung disease due to coal mining and pollution in West Virginia. Her campaign wanted to address the failing infrastructure in her community and the politicians in West Virginia who consistently allow mining corporations to exploit workers there, and pollute West Virginia’s waters. Her campaign was essentially to address a standard of living issues, whereby West Virginians have been neglected in favor of dirty industries. She notes that people usually think of West Virginians as stereotypical hill billy’s without teeth– but what this stereotype neglects is why their state could be stereotyped in that way. Her loss to Joe Manchin, a senator that frequently votes with Republicans and is in the pockets of dirty industry, incredibly sad. Noteworthy is that Manchin called Swearengin after her loss and expressed interest in hearing out the grievances.
Amy Vilela ran for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District and sadly lost by less than 19,400 votes against a politician who previously represented the district (prior to him not representing the district at the time of the 2018 elections). Prior to her run, Amy was an accountant. What politicized her was the avoidable death of her 22 year old daughter. Amy’s daughter was experiencing symptoms of blood clotting (if I am remembering correctly) but was denied service because when she (the daughter) ran to the hospital, she could not prove that she had health insurance. She then went into a coma before being announced brain dead. Amy’s story made me cry the most. Any life lost, especially a young life lost, due to there not being service at the point of entry into a medical facility is troubling. It is also why Medicare for All is so popular in the United States, and this experience is what made Amy run unapologetically for Medicare for All– without accepting any PAC money. The latter of which the primary winner, Steven Horsford, wouldn’t even commit to during an informal discussion like setting.
All in all, I would recommend this film 10/10. It is a raw take on real, authentic people that you can empathize with, becoming political based on an issue that they can identify within their communities. The battle that they all waged was hard– and I believe could have been won, had Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela had more name recognition. Ocasio-Cortez’s win was and is marvelous– but the documentary also revealed something very important: In New York, people are outside walking, on the train, frequenting a bodega–they have access to information based on a grassroots campaign. In the case of Missouri, West Virginia, and Nevada– their campaigns depended on going to houses since community spaces (imo) seemed lacking. Public transport and people walking outside was not common. We have an infrastructure problem in many parts of this country– and neglected infrastructure in some parts– but I could not help but noticed that if some of these states were more connected (transport and social) candidates actually trying to improve their states would win.
I hope these ladies continue their fight!