May 27, 2019
Welcome back for another review. Yesterday’s documentary focused on one of the many issues facing society today, but today’s documentary gives us one of the many solutions to addressing those issues head on. For a few other politically inspiring documentaries, check out “Seeing Allred” (Episode #041), “Mercury 13” (Episode #116), “RBG” (Episode #200), “Reversing Roe” (Episode #496), and “Feminists: What Were They Thinking?” (Episode #291).
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Here we go!
Today’s movie is “Knock Down The House”, the Netflix Original documentary directed by Rachel Lears and written in collaboration with Robin Blotnick. The film follows four women during the 2018 Congressional Election, including Amy Vilela, Paula Jean Swearengin, Cori Bush, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Each woman decided to jump into politics, despite varying experience levels, and end up with unexpected results.
I have a troubled relationship with electoral politics, especially of the entrenched variety and especially living in California. When it comes to voting for President, the makeup of the Electoral College and the way that California apportions its votes means that my vote nearly always ends up counting for the Democratic candidate. It’s what you call a “safe state” when it comes to the quadrennial horse race, and it effectively renders non-Democratic voters meaningless. When it comes to voting for offices besides president, however, we now have a new Open Primary law. This law creates a single primary ballot for all voters, allowing everyone to vote for someone regardless of party. The hope was that it would diversify candidates across parties. The reality is that voters feel pressured to vote for each party’s frontrunner, aside from the few single party general elections that have occurred. Which means my ultimate vote is between two candidates that don’t really look a lot different from the choices I had before, and now I can’t even cast a protest vote.
Why am I going on so much about electoral politics? Because they matter more than ever right now, and especially at the local level. It’s no secret that I don’t hold a lot of faith for political change at the federal level, despite the focus of today’s documentary. I don’t know if what our federal government has become can be the change we’ll need to face the challenges of climate change, military imperialism, and the immense wealth disparity that prevents us from accomplishing so much. But I do know how our federal government was supposed to work, and I do know how I would like it to work, and “Knock Down The House” shows us a glimpse of the kind of campaigns and representatives we need to change the discussion in Washington. And even if my faith in federal politics is quite poor, I believe the electoral organizing and political principles in this film can be a model for the much more accessible and powerful state, county, city, and neighborhood offices.
“Knock Down The House” follows four challengers to long-standing Democratic incumbents. As mentioned in the documentary, after the 2016 election which brought Trump into office, against all polling data and mainstream analysis, the old playbooks and indicators no longer seemed to matter. This kind of political chaos creates a lot of opportunities, especially when a much more progressive base invigorated in part by the Sanders campaign brought more educated, and demanding, activists into the Democratic Party. Activists and grassroots leaders who were asking tough questions not just of the new administration, but also within their own party.
All four candidates fall into this latter group of activists, inspired by radical, yet sensible policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, like sensible (instead of draconian) immigration policy, and like holding banks and corporations accountable for their actions. Policies that established incumbents have either denounced or dismissed, like those challenged by each candidate. Established incumbents who outside of electoral success, have overseen the steady decline of the working class for the last thirty years. It’s hard to run on experience when the record is now easily accessible and speaks quite well for itself.
Lears and Blotnick use a pretty standard timeline-driven narrative for “Knock Down The House”, following each candidate from qualifying for the ballot through to their primary elections, and selecting material and interviews that tied together and reinforced the main themes very well. The documentary focuses not just on each candidate, but their shared experience as women running for office, and the double standards that come from the media and some voters. It also focuses on their incredibly human and genuine stories, like those of everyday Americans, who actually understand what it’s like to have systems fail you, or to live under economic hardship. Not folks who have multiple homes, six-figure speaking fees, and receive most of their campaign money from corporations and billionaires. We get their political lives and their personal lives, because the political is personal and the personal is political.
Of course, just because we fight doesn’t mean that we always win. The film is definitely weighted towards Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and her surprise victory over incumbent Joe Crowley. Her story is so inspiring and genuine that even a cynic like me recognizes the hope and promise within it. I definitely found myself moved more than once, even knowing the outcome. The other candidates may not fare as well, but they do pull in impressive vote percentages, and end up opening up opportunities to continue pushing for change, without losing their humanity or their principles. Each challenger represents another test to the establishment, and now that one has broken through to shake up a government, it is inevitable that more and more will come forward. I may not have a lot of hope for federal electoral politics, but I had hope watching this documentary, and that is probably the highest praise I can give.
“Knock Down The House” is a glimpse into the kind of political change we’ll need at all levels to meet the coming challenges. Lears and Blotnick deliver a timeline-driven story from quality source material, which elevates the standard documentary structure with its four inspiring stories. Fans of political documentaries, or folks who love to see the system work for a change, should definitely check out this film. And then get involved in your local politics, where you can have the most, and the best, influence.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
One Movie Punch: 9.0/10
“Knock Down The House” (2019) is rated PG and is currently playing on Netflix.