Rachel Lears’ 2019 documentary, Knock Down the House, depicts the struggle of four women, desperate to see change in their communities and represent their people in Congress. Each of them faces their own individual challenges and it is this struggle to overcome adversity that inspires the audience to believe in their own capability to create change, despite the prospect of failure.
Knock Down the House, follows the campaign trails of four ordinary, working women running for congress in 2018. In a historic year for women in American politics, Lears tracks the highs and lows of running a campaign in the modern-day U.S. The documentary displays a striking image of women who care so much about representing their communities, that it hurts them.
Throughout their campaigns, all of the women experience the fear of letting people down. The emotional vulnerability of the women conveys just how much making a difference means to them; their genuine passion to see change is inspiring to all who see the documentary. From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s burning desire to see ‘everyday Americans … be represented by everyday Americans’, to Paula Jean Swearengin’s desperation to see her district be restored to its former glory, the candidates speak on behalf of the communities that they were born and raised in. They seek to empower people to question the established authorities, helping them to believe that anyone has the power to challenge things that they disagree with.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran for congress in New York’s 14th District, where at the time Joseph Crowley had remained unchallenged for 14 years. Emerging from a working-class background, Ocasio-Cortez managed her waitressing job alongside running her campaign. The lack of Crowley’s presence in New York, and his inability to understand the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, fuels Ocasio-Cortez’s fire; her desperation for her community to be heard and cared about is abundantly clear.
Paula Jean Swearengin was running for senate in West Virginia. She was challenging the established politician, Senator Joe Manchin. From a longline of coalminers, Swearengin was spurred on by a desire to see her forgotten community be taken seriously once more. Ensuring the safety of West Virginian’s, who are existing on essentially dumping grounds, is a pivotal component of Swearengin’s campaign.
Cori Bush ran for congress in Missouri’s 1st District, posing opposition to Lacy Clay who had represented the district for 17 years. Juggling the challenges of being a registered nurse, pastor and mother, Bush was inspired to take a stand after seeing the racist violence that was taking place in Ferguson and across her district.
Amy Vilela campaigned for congress in Nevada’s 4th District against opponent Steven Horsford. Vilela’s daughter Shalynne tragically passed away after being unable to provide health insurance documents, in order to attain the results of recent scans that she had undergone. Amy was taking a stand against what she labels the ‘profit-driven healthcare system’ in place in America. Her desire to see unlimited healthcare for all was a key component of her campaign.
One by one, each candidate finds out the results of their separate primary elections. Swearengin, Bush and Vilela are all filmed as they each discover the unfortunate loss of their campaigns. During these scenes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is heard on the phone, declaring that ‘in order for one of us to get through, 100 have to try’. This symbolises the movement that these women were all a part of, that demands change in the way that the United States elects officials. A movement that places political importance and value on each voice, irrespective of class or sex. They show that emotions only make you stronger; it is not a weakness to show how much you care.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the final candidate to find out her results, and in a scene that could have been taken straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, she walks into the room where her friends, family and colleagues are gathered, to find out that she has won. The overriding sense of pride and joy is infectious and inspiring to the audience, who acknowledge that the dreams of a woman who was deemed too young and inexperienced to make a difference, has done exactly that.
Yet, Lears chooses not to conclude her documentary with this success party. Instead she follows Ocasio-Cortez’s first visit to the White House as the official Representative of New York’s 14th District. The emotional moment sees her reflect on the struggle that she has faced to get where she is. From losing her father during college, to having the odds stacked against her economically — the battle that she has overcome is truly incredible. The enormity of the responsibility that Ocasio-Cortez now has is clear from the closing shots outside the White House, but the 90-minute documentary leaves viewers with no doubt that New York’s 14th District could not be in safer hands.
A Final Thought
In an age where the political landscape is nothing short of bleak at times, the four women in Knock Down the House, represent a refreshingly optimistic future for politics. Despite the setbacks and the rejections, the documentary suggests that these women will keep going, because what they have to say is too important to be silenced. They are symbolic of the power of caring about people and the necessity to stand up and fight for your community and your beliefs, no matter how unlikely the chance of success may appear. I implore anyone who wants to experience this extraordinary sense of empowerment to watch Knock Down the House, and learn from these incredible stories.