Knock Down the House: Highlights and Review.

My thoughts on the powerful new Netflix documentary.

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Photo via PaulaJean2020 on Twitter

“It’s just the reality that for one of us to make it through, one hundred of us have to try.” — Alexandria Ocasio Cortez

On May 1st, Netflix released the long anticipated documentary ‘Knock Down the House’, that chronicles the primary campaigns of four progressive women from all over the country. Among the four women was the powerhouse currently representing the Bronx and Queens, democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Director and Producer Rachel Lears took her crew and followed AOC, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin on their heartbreaking but uplifting journeys through the democratic process, and gave viewers a raw and intimate look into not only their campaigns, but their hearts and motives as well.

“”They call it working class for a reason.” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

From the beginning, the documentary did an incredible job at humanizing AOC, and reminding the democratic base of her humble beginnings. It’s incredible to see where she was just once year ago. We were shown her tiny little New York City apartment she shared with her boyfriend, and reminded of the fact that while she was organizing to take on Joe Crowley, who just so happened to be the fourth most powerful democrat in congress and hadn’t had a primary challenger in 14 years, she was working as a bartender.

While her opponents today use her background in hospitality to minimize her, AOC discussed how ultimately it was working to her advantage. She was used to being on her feet, interacting with and listening to people, and taking heat. Being able to view it knowing that she went on to win made the littlest moments, like watching her pour drinks and take out the ice, serve as a powerful reminder of what she was able to and continues to achieve.

“If another country came in here, blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we’d go to war. But industry can.” — Paula Jean Swearengin

Perhaps out of all four women, Paula Jean Swearengin was the one I identified with the most.

If anything was made clear throughout her fight to unseat West Virginia’s democratic Senator Joe Manchin, it was the amount of pride and love she had for her community. Like Paula Jean I live in a very poor area, and I am also a descendant of a coal miner who gave his life to that industry providing for his family. It was incredibly sobering to hear her speak about the toll coal mining was taking not only on the local environment, but the community health as well.

One of the biggest takeaways from the film was these women weren’t just challenging democratic incumbents, they were challenging the corporations and industries that had gotten them to where they were. Paula Jean’s mother was briefly featured in the documentary, long enough to discuss how her daughter’s campaign scared her to death, because she knew how the coal industry operated “back in my Daddy’s day”. I’m so glad that scene made the final cut, as it was an important reminder that grass roots organization is often not met with approval by people and organizations in positions of power.

“If they’d fix it, I wouldn’t have to rebel.” — Cori Bush

It is absolutely impossible to pick a favorite out of these four women, and Cori Bush doesn’t make it any easier. Like all of the others, Cori’s humble background was highlighted in the film. As an African American woman, registered nurse, ordained pastor, and mother of two teenagers, Cori was the epitome of the people in her district and she hoped to represent them as such.

As just another viewer it’s difficult to imagine the levels of obstacles that stood in Cori’s way, and how well she fought against them. She was not only running against an incumbent, she was running against Lacy Clay, a member of a political dynasty that had represented the first district of Missouri since 1969 when his father William Clay was congressman. Cori lived six minutes away from Ferguson, where unarmed 17 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police not long ago. While her campaign was not the central focus of the film, it was absolutely clear that Cori was fighting to ensure that her community was policed by officers who they could turn to to keep them safe instead of bringing further harm.

One of the best bits of discourse in the documentary in my view took place between Cori and a constituent, who said “seniority counts up there” when referring to D.C. and her efforts to unseat Clay. Cori then responded with: “yeah, but who does it count for?” Those seven words essentially sum up the root of the problem, and everything that a progressive candidate fights to change.

“I’m not going to allow my daughter to have died for nothing.” — Amy Vilela

Running for congress in Nevada’s fourth district, Amy Vilela’s background was arguably the most compelling, and it was easy to see why Medicare for All was the central issue in her campaign. Listening to her tell the story of how she lost her 22 year old daughter Shalynne to a pulmonary embolism after the hospital refused to run tests because she didn’t have health insurance literally brought me to tears. One of the most powerful moments in the entire film was when Amy picked up her phone and said: “THIS is a commodity. My daughter’s life wasn’t.”

Another interesting aspect of Vilela’s campaign was the fact that Joe Crowley himself, all the way across the country, was helping to fund the campaign of one of her opponents. It just goes to prove how wide the establishment web is stretched, and the obstacles that stand in the way of candidates with the courage to run outside of and against it.

“This is the difference between an organizer, and a strategist.” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

One of my favorite moments in the documentary was Alexandria’s Jim Halpert moment as she studied Joe Crowley’s campaign flyer, and looked in to the camera as though she were on an episode of the Office. Not only was the moment light hearted and funny, but substantive as well. She pointed out how her flyer listed her policy proposals, the primary date, and what she would do for the community she hoped to represent.

Joe Crowley’s on the other hand, mentioned Donald Trump three times and his commitments zero. There wasn’t even a primary date. Instead it was a few folded pages of glossy, beautiful pictures with no real meaning behind them, and Alexandria’s frustration with it was clear and justified.

“I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this. And this whole thing, this whole time he’s gonna tell me I’m small, that I’m little, that I’m young, that I’m inexperienced.” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Looking back now, it’s incredible to think about how in the beginning, no one in the democratic establishment took Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seriously. Not even the man she was running a primary campaign against.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that Joe Crowley made was his initial snub of a debate against Alexandria. Worse than that, he sent a surrogate instead who also happened to be a latina woman. But, that’s what the established wealthy and powerful do, don’t they? They pin members of a community against one another, in an effort to keep them fighting amongst themselves and distracting them from the issues that plague the communities around them.

Alexandria however, was having none of it, and her continued steady rise left Joe Crowley no real choice but to debate her. Instead of agreeing to that initial one hundred person community debate, Joe Crowley eventually asked for a live debate on New York One. Her mental preparation for this debate was captured by the film, and was one of the raw, intimate moments that made this documentary so powerful.

One of the most surreal scenes of the debate was during AOC’s monologue about the consequences of ten years of failed leadership and what she feels needs to happen in order to change it. As she spoke, Crowley sat there rolling up his sleeves. It was incredible considering she had discussed at the very beginning of the documentary how men in politics essentially just have to put on a collared shirt and roll up their sleeves in order to get ready. It’s clear that Joe Crowley was thoroughly unprepared to rise to the challenge to his power presented in the form of a young Latina woman from the Bronx.

“The last thing my Dad ever told me was to make him proud.” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

While it was heartbreaking to see the three other candidates lose, watching Alexandria’s reaction to her unfolding victory was without a doubt one of the most powerful and uplifting political moments I’ve ever seen. Her raw emotion, disbelief, and inexpressible joy was amazing to see, and instantly brought me back to the images of where she had started from.

For the second time, I was brought to tears by the movie when Alexandria talked about her late father, and how when she was a little girl he had brought her along on a trip to the capital, and told her all of it was hers. And now there she was, a young woman who had put her heart and soul in to the fight, won, and was now returning as someone who was about to be representing her district in congress.

‘Knock Down the House’ did an incredible job of capturing the hearts and minds of these women on video, and if its goal was to remind America that change starts with every day citizens, it certainly did the job. There were moments of both heartbreak and triumph that ultimately encompass the very soul of the progressive movement, and it filled me with a renewed sense of optimism I haven’t felt in a very long time.

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Lauren is a writer & leftist with analysis on topics related to politics & policy. She can be reached at or Twitter @xlauren_mx

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