It is safe to say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the cause célèbre of the 116th US Congress. Elected after mounting an insurgent campaign on a platform of social justice and inclusion, the 29-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx has quickly become one of the most outspoken and recognizable politicians in the Democratic Party, advocating for health access, equal opportunity and more stringent regulation of the late capitalist kleptocracy currently clinging to power via the nationalist populist Trump regime.
By doing so she has in a few short months galvanized both support of progressives and frenzied the fears of conservatives who have poured on the attacks and the insults. Fox pundits and right-wing commentators have become obsessed with the freshman politician from New York, attacking her as a socialist radical even as she has become the target of threats on social media. And yet the junior congresswoman, herself an Instagram and Twitter sensation, has proven singularly adept at communicating her message and prevailing over her adversaries (including the congressional patriarchy and the entrenched Democratic establishment) while advancing an ambitious political agenda like the Green New Deal initiative to combat economic inequality and address climate change.
Now a documentary about her initial political campaign has won the audience award at the Sundance film festival. Knock Down the House, directed by Rachel Lears, actually follows the campaigns of four insurgent candidates as they try to pull upset primary victories against Democratic incumbents ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. The four women are part, as we are appraised at the beginning of the film, of a nationwide grassroots movement sparked in opposition to Donald Trump’s election that aims to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Republicans but also to reshape the Democratic establishment with an infusion of young, independent-minded citizen-candidates. They are recruited and supported by Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, two political action committees that arose from the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Among the many who formed the blue wave that washed over the House in November’s midterm election, Lears picked four women who were mounting challenges against all odds. In West Virginia, her camera follows Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter fighting the Big Energy concerns that threaten her hard scrabble community with fracking operations. In Las Vegas, we meet Amy Vilela, a single mother and grandmother fighting for health care (her 21-year-old daughter died after having been refused treatment because she was uninsured). Cory Bush is a resident of the majority African American district where Michael Brown was shot and killed by police sparking the Ferguson riots. And in New York’s upper boroughs, a 29-year-old Latina bartender, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, decides to take on the entrenched political machine of Rep. Joe Crowley, a high-ranking member of the Democratic hierarchy in Washington.
All are political outsiders moved by outrage and the desire to give regular citizens a political voice. And although Ocasio-Cortez, by far the most recognizable of the group, understandably ends up getting the bulk of the attention, each woman’s story has an irresistible underdog appeal. It is almost impossible not to root for their uphill—and thoroughly righteous—struggle to overcome overwhelming odds. The film alternates between the mundane work of political organizing—gumshoeing through neighborhoods, knocking on doors, huddling with advisers and strategists around kitchen tables—and the intimate moments in which the candidates, sometimes startlingly candid, speak of their motivations and insecurities, all as time inexorably ticks toward election night.
Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she has come to be known to her legion of supporters and Instagram followers, undeniably has the starring role. Young and striking, by turns self-assured and insecure, the daughter of a working-class Puerto Rican family form the Bronx, stalks subway stations and neighborhood markets, glad handing Muslim mothers, Yemeni merchants and Caribbean grandmothers with the same infectious enthusiasm and perseverance, even as she confides her doubts and fears to her boyfriend in their tiny Bronx apartment. It’s a primer on local politics as well as inspirational road map to grassroots activism infused with Frank Capra-esque idealism, a kind of Mrs. Smith goes to Washington.
And yet this is not simple agitprop. The film’s undeniable merit is to deliver a comprehensive portrait of a politician who has become a social media superstar and one of the most recognized faces in the political mediasphere, even while juggling multiple story lines within the confines of a snappy 90-minute running time. Knocking Down the House shows the advantage of the documentary form over social media exposure, which can reach wide but seldom deep. Lears spends time with Ocasio-Cortez’s family and friends, and the image that emerges from those encounters as well as from the family pictures and home movies is of a woman of uncommon charisma and purpose since childhood, and of an empathetic intelligence shaped largely by the tight bond with an eminently ethical father.
The film’s parallel strands all converge toward the thrilling climax while offering an enlightening peak behind the political scenes. It may not feature the larger-than-life figures of films like The War Room (on the first Bill Clinton campaign), but Knock Down The House feels compellingly of the moment as it captures the emotion of righteous political commitment. Not all the candidates featured in the film are as successful in their election run as Ocasio Cortez, but as she herself states: “for one to make it one hundred must try”. The women, like the more than 40 newly elected democrats now sitting in the House consider themselves the vanguard of a political movement, the resistance which aims to defeat Trump in 2020 and take back the country from the populists.
As Sundance Artistic Director John Cooper pointed out in Park City, this festival was the first to feature films written conceived and shot during the Trump era and the energy and urgency of that fact is palpable in this film.
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