We’re running to win.
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election galvanized a lot of racists throughout America to let their bigotry rise to the surface (if it hadn’t already been unleashed) as though they now had permission to spew hate without recourse. It also woke up a legion of outsiders who realized the status quo was corrupted on both sides of the aisle. As soon as elected officials found themselves treating their office as a career aspiration, they began to figure out ways to enrich their bank accounts in order to do so. A gatekeeping establishment was therefore created on the backs of this pursuit with lobbyists and corporations ostensibly bribing candidates to ensure their interests were always paramount to that of the voters—collateral damage rendered disposable once polls close.
As this resentment among the masses rose, documentarian Rachel Lears approached the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress organizations to see if any new blood was putting their hats in the ring to show the fat cats living comfortably on dirty payouts were no longer safe. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York’s 14th congressional district), Amy Vilela (Nevada’s 4th), Cori Bush (Missouri’s 1st), and Paula Jean Swearengin (a West Virginia Senate seat) each had the confidence necessary to pull off the upsets, the fact they were running at all meant something regardless. Earning just a fraction of the vote would show incumbents that they’ve lost their grip and any more would show the people at home how their voice does matter and can eventually change things in the future.
We know now that the 2018 midterm elections saw the democrats take back the House of Representatives and end the short-lived republican strange-hold on the executive and legislative branches. What Lears and co-writer Robin Blotnick seek to portray with their film is how that victory was ignited in the primaries. The title is therefore aptly concise: Knock Down the House. These four women (and many others seen if not named) targeted entrenched politicians and put the screws to them with runs threatening to push them off the ticket altogether. They were inexperienced in politics (each a working class citizen devoid of puppet-strings) and asked voters to risk losing their “sure-thing” democratic seats with the acknowledgement that their usual candidate hadn’t done much that a republican wouldn’t have anyway.
It’s a bold message, but one that the other side embraced to put a reality television star in the White House. The more a politician toes the moderate line, the more people stay home because little can get done if everyone is working in tandem to retain the status quo that cashes their checks. Trump showed that Middle America craved change. He gave purpose to their antiquated and ignorant delusions of a nondescript version of the past being ripped from their hands by a future specifically targeting their way of life. Well they got the last laugh and showed what could happen when the line was removed completely—a governing body of sycophants more attuned to their career’s survival than the morality they shed years ago.
While I would have liked the film to share more of the process these women used to turn the tables and weaponize minorities like Trump did racists, the long-standing members of congress who hadn’t had to work to put their name on the ballot in over a decade (in some cases) didn’t comply. Only Joe Crowley (the powerful congressman Ocasio-Cortez primaried) is seen getting demolished in a debate he was unprepared to fight—and not until he realized he couldn’t avoid her any longer. What we watch instead are a couple quick glimpses of canvassing, donor calls, and town halls sprinkled amongst the women’s backstories. It’s therefore less about what standing up entails than the circumstances that got them to stand in the first place.
And that’s interesting enough to get us through because all four are charismatic, impassioned, and authentic. To understand why they’d be attempting this Herculean feat is ultimately a huge part of the process because that investment in the cause gets the ball rolling to buy into this brand new way of living for a year or more of campaigning. We learn about tragedies they’ve endured and the underserved communities waiting for someone to speak on their behalf rather than Washington’s. We see them grow confidence and really believe wholeheartedly that they can win solely because they’re on the right side of history and a political cancer America’s complacency has let spread to the lymphatic system with little room for a cure. Shock and awe is necessary.
I wanted more of the war itself, though. More comparison/contrast like Ocasio-Cortez using mailer design to prove how out-of-touch these swampy democrats have become. Lears lucked out as far as who wins and when in relation to the others so her narrative thrust’s most powerful angle keeps everything linear, but that purposeful focus doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts of the why. Knock Down the House does end up proving a bit superficial as a result—emotionally inspirational even if no answers are presented besides “take a chance.” It’s nice to know change is possible, though, even if it’s small. The hope is that one victory grows into two and so on until our government is truly once again of, by, and for the people.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
courtesy of Netflix