Knock Down the House (Rachel Lears, 2019) – Global Acquisition – Documentary
Four women running against established incumbent Democrats in various congressional and senatorial races across the US are profiled in this documentary. In a quasi-direct cinema manner, Knockdown the House follows the campaigns of: Cori Bush, a black woman running for a seat in the House in a district that includes Ferguson, Missouri; Amy Vilela whose run for a seat in the House is motivated in part by personal tragedy; Paula Jean Swearengin, a Senate candidate from rural West Virginia; and a young bartender from the Bronx, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose campaign to unseat one of the most powerful congressmen in the country would lead her to worldwide fame.
Some of Netflix´s best documentaries (and indeed many of those in film history generally) have been made by film-makers who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Films such as Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, Icarus and Get Me Roger Stone all changed dramatically during the production process when their makers realized just how prescient they had been with their selection of subjects. Such is undoubtedly the case with Knock Down the House in which writer-director Rachel Lears and her team caught lightning in a bottle in the form of Ocasio-Cortez. This shouldn´t overshadow the fact that all four of the candidates are equally articulate, engaging and interesting, but by virtue of her eventual victory and subsequent meteoric rise in American politics, this will forever be known as “the AOC film.”
While this will be seen as luck by some, you can clearly see why Ocasio-Cortez made such an ideal candidate for a film like this, and these reasons are what also make an exciting political figure to some and a threat to others. She is passionate without being reckless, articulate without losing her demotic touch and consummately engaging and charismatic. Lears´s ability to strike up a rapport with her and to gain so much access to her family, her home videos and so much else, make this amongst the most intimate and compelling portraits of a political figure since films like Primary revolutionized documentary as an art form.
And the comparison to the early days of direct cinema is appropriate in this case, even if Knock Down did not invent a new style of documentary like its predecessors did. We really are made to feel like witnesses to history in this film. Not only because of the possible ongoing rise of progressive Democrats who could sweep to power in the 2020 elections, but also because Lears really gets us close to the epicenter of that movement. A particularly thrilling moment in this regard is the moment in which Ocasio-Cortez scrambles to get into her own rally, discovering in that very moment that she has actually won the race. Robert Drew and his associates would have been proud of this achievement in documentary immediacy.
But the discovery of Ocasio-Cortez did have some negative effects on the final form of the film. Such is her star power in the film that Bush, Swearengin and Vilela are very much overshadowed, both by AOC´s charisma which one imagines can never be outshone, but also in the editing of film. Each of their storylines are given relatively short shrift by Lears and we even go for long stretches of the film forgetting that it was supposed to be an ensemble film.
Similarly, it is surprising to see that Lears makes no mention of the simultaneous election of a number of progressive women of color in the US, such as Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib. The 2018 midterms were actually a promising moment for those hoping for progressive change in Washington, so it is odd to see Lears leaving us with the impression that it was 75% bad news that night.
These oversights make the film feel like that rare documentary that would have benefited from being longer and trying to say more about its subject matter rather than concisely focusing on the star attraction. For this reason, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the final images of the film, which are incredibly poetic and candid on one hand but also mark a retreat to celebrity film-making from the more wide-ranging political statement that was envisioned at the film´s outset.
All that said, it is hard to deny the uplifting aspects of this film, making it one of the great underdog stories of recent documentary cinema and one that, for a brief moment amid the current gloom, restores one´s faith in American democracy as something that might actually be fundamentally egalitarian.
Netflix bought Knock Down the House at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019 where numerous distributors were chasing the film. In the end Netflix was willing/able to pay more than everyone else and indeed more than had ever been paid for a documentary at Sundance, making it a case study in Netflix ironic use of its economic might to brand itself with a “woke” film about socioeconomic underdogs, much as was seen in the case of Roma. But in this case, the film was actually less risky than its Oscar winning counterpart as AOC was already a huge star by the time the film played in Sundance.
The film was made by female writer-director Rachel Lears.
The film´s content – showcasing a multiracial group of female political candidates – was challenging when it was in production, making it quite risky to finance. This was NOT done by Netflix, but instead by Kickstarter campaign. In choosing to buy and distribute the film, Netflix had the benefit of knowing that Ocasio-Cortez was already a major celebrity politician, making their contribution to the film´s life much less of a courageous embrace of marginalized groups than its marketing will invariably make it seem was the case.