Meet the Real Avengers, in “Knock Down the House”

Meet the Real Avengers, in “Knock Down the House” May 5, 2019
Cori Bush campaigning in Missouri, in “Knock Down the House”

Judging by its box office take, moviegoers don’t need a film critic to tell them to go see Avengers: Endgame.  Entertaining as I found it to be, in America 2019, I hope that our distress over Thanos’ making half the world population disappear won’t diminish our horror over the Sixth Extinction currently making all megafauna and aquatic life disappear.  I hope, too, that preoccupation with a fictional intergalactic tyrant won’t detract from our fight with the too-real treasonous fascist grifter in the Oval Office and his perjuring enabler Bill Barr.

So, though you don’t need me to tell you to go see a Marvel movie, let me urge you to watch Knock Down the House, a solid documentary about real-life superheroes.  You’ve probably heard of one of them, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  But this film also follows three less-familiar female candidates for the U.S. House in 2018, where a record number of women, as well as members of ethnic and religious minorities, ran for office.

Knock Down the House opens a year before the Democratic primaries, with progressive organizations like Justice Democrats recruiting women to contest Democratic incumbents who are more interested in the ossified status quo than effecting true change in this country.  Cori Bush is a black St. Louis nurse contending against a political family that’s presided over 50 years of urban decay and mass incarceration.  Paula Jean Swearingen is a West Virginia coal miner’s daughter, battling Democrat in name only Joe Manchin.  Amy Vilela’s underinsured 22 year old daughter died from a curable medical condition, so she’s fighting for a Nevada seat under a platform of Medicare for all.

And then there’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so famous now that her initials are nationally recognizable.  It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Knock Down the House spends most of its time on AOC’s life and campaign.  We’re shown adorable home videos of her childhood, learn of her close bond with her parents, see her with her devoted partner Riley in their cramped home, and watch her brother and niece canvass next to her.

More importantly, we’re reminded of why she has legitimately garnered so much media attention, and why she was the perfect candidate to go after absentee New York Representative Joe Crowley, the fourth most powerful Democrat in the House.  She’s fast on her feet, whip-smart, articulate, and culturally sensitive in an ethnically diverse district.  And she’s not afraid to hit back at patronizing men like Ted Cruz and Crowley:  when Crowley tells her during a debate that “you’ve brought a lot of energy to this fight,” all that’s missing from his condescension is a “little lady” at the end.

This documentary, director Rachel Lears’ third, effectively jumps around the country to show us these women’s diligent campaigning.  We’re given a vivid feel for the drudgery of pleading phone calls for money, the summoning of courage to knock on strangers’ doors, and the camaraderie of the volunteers who believe in these candidates.  We’re also reminded of how female candidates are held to higher behavioral standards than men, requiring a tightrope walk of strength and candor, without being perceived as “bitchy” or “emotional.”

Along the way, there are memorable lines from each of the candidates, as when AOC states this isn’t a contest of left versus right, but up versus down; or, as Swearingen shows us around strip-mined countryside and says, “If another country came in and bombed our land and poisoned our water like this, we’d go to war.”

Paula Jean Swearingen, as seen in “Knock Down the House”

Lears cannily builds the suspense up to primary election day.  For those like me who didn’t know the outcome of all four campaigns, I won’t spoil things here, only noting that as in our own lives, virtue is no guarantee of a positive result.

Cynics will doubtlessly say that Knock Down the House is a great promotional piece for AOC’s brand.  However, I saw nothing in Lears’ film to make me question her core decency, while her performance in Congress in 2019 only raises my esteem for her.  And her central platform ideas – a Green New Deal, higher taxes for the uber-rich, a higher minimum wage, free college, health insurance for all, the abolition of ICE – still strike me as eminently sane and desperately needed.

So, more optimistically, I hope Knock Down the House will inspire more candidates of character to run for (and win) national office.  I hope, too, that Rachel Lears’ film will be a useful historical document when AOC runs for President in 2024 or 2028.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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