‘Knock Down the House’ documents a new tradition

Upstart politicians: Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin, and Amy Vilela

Upstart politicians: Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin, and Amy Vilela

Representative Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez and
her progressive cohorts
are part of
a movement that
will not be ignored


Knock Down the House, which debuts today on Netflix, is the story of four American women who turned their political frustrations into a national wakeup call.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin, Cori Bush, and Amy Vilela jumped into politics shortly before the 2016 elections. They hailed from all over — the Bronx, West Virginia, St. Louis, and Las Vegas — but they were united by a common belief that the Democratic Party was failing and needed to change.

“We have lost the House. We have lost the Senate. We have lost the Presidency,” Ocasio-Cortez tells Congressman Joseph Crowley during a televised debate midway through the film. “It would be a profound mistake if we believe that the same leadership getting us into this mess is gonna get us out.”

She would defeat the 20-year Democratic Representative from New York’s 14th district a few weeks later. Then, according to the hysterical end of America’s national dialogue, the Gentlewoman from New York started pushing crazy ideas onto a legislative body that she knows nothing about.



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But with frank interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, Knock Down the House shows how Ocasio-Cortez and her associates make a lot more sense than the partisan press insinuates. Combining it all into a narrative that follows the course of their campaigns, the film reveals a movement that will not be ignored.

These candidates don’t sound like politicians, and the film makes no attempt to prove otherwise. They are people you used to work with, people who live down the street, people you can talk to, and they believe that their lack of experience is exactly what America needs. They can help fix things because they have endured ground-level grief from the bungled policies that everyone except politicians has to live with.

Ocasio worked a second job waiting tables to help her family fight off an impending home foreclosure. “My experience in hospitality has prepared me so well for this race,” she says. “They call it ‘working class’ for a reason.”

Swearengin lives in West Virginina, “one of the poorest and sickest states in the nation,” a place where coal mining wrecks the environment and spreads cancer. “If another country came in here and blew up our mountains and poisoned our water,” she says, “we’d go to war.”

Bush lives in Missouri’s First District, home to high rates of murder, poverty, incarceration, and the sight of the Ferguson riots. “I was not trying to become an activist,” she says. “It was like a battleground at home. I took to the streets to lend a hand as a nurse.”

Vilela put herself through school with the help of Medicaid, WIC, and food stamps. Then she became the CFO of a construction management consulting firm. She watched her 22-year-old daughter die from complications that were intensified by a lack of health insurance. “I got into bed and I held her and I sang the song I used to sing to her when she was a baby,” she recalls. “I played with her hair and told her how much I loved her until she took her last breath.”

None of the candidates mentions anything about “democratic socialism” or Bernie Saunders. They are too busy going door-to-door, gathering signatures, registering voters, distributing flyers, making election posters, and giving speeches to random and occasionally sparse crowds.

Director Rachel Lears, who also served as the films cinematographer, seems to follow them everywhere.

Emphasizing personal experience over political strategy, their campaign messages start out like NPR-sounding testimonials and rise to a contagious level of intensity. In Las Vegas, Vilela declares, “now that my eyes are open, I cannot and will not close them again.” In St. Louis, Bush wonders why police officers are unable to de-escalate people with guns before concluding that, “the problems that we are having in our district are problems that we ourselves can fix.”

They also track their opponents, who are all Democrats with big traditional money. In New York, a poll shows Crowley ahead of Ocasio-Cortez by 35 points. In West Virginia, two-term Senator Joseph Manchin III has a problem with people “demonizing” the coal industry. In Missouri’s First District, which has been represented by William and his son Lacy Clay since 1969, a resident tells Bush, “I ain’t never seen no democrat with the guts to go up against the Clays in a long time.” She smiles and keeps going.

When the elections roll around, the candidates begin to fall short of their goals. After Vilela loses to Steven Horsford, Ocasio-Cortez consoles her by saying, “in order for one of us to get through, a hundred of us have to try.”

Indeed, the wrath of these progressive women is fueled by patience, empathy, perseverance, and compassion.

The only reference to President Trump occurs on a piece of direct mail from Congressman Crowley’s reelection campaign. Boasting about his ideological battle against the Commander in chief, it prompts Ocasio-Cortez to conclude that he is woefully out of touch.

And then she wins.

Beginning today, “Knock Down The House” is available for viewing on Netflix.

Send your indie updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.