We speak to director Rachel Lears about Knock Down the House, a doc that captures the struggles of working-class women challenging the establishment
It’s January 2018 and Flats Fix taco and tequila bar in downtown Manhattan is preparing for business. As stock is wheeled through the front door and chefs sharpen their knives in the kitchen, down in the basement little-known local activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is shoveling ice into a bucket for her cocktail waitressing shift. “If I was like, a normal, rational person,” she laughs, “I would have dropped out of this race a long time ago”.
She is, of course, referring to the race to represent New York’s 14th district in Congress, in which she is pitched against middle-aged white man and holder of the position for the past 18 years, Joe Crowley.
Crowley has the air of a man so firmly couched in the establishment and so detached from his constituents – he lives in Virginia, not New York – that he simply cannot comprehend the challenge to his tenure. There hasn’t been one for over 14 years. “You got a caucasian man that’s a Congressman for the Bronx, Queens, and Rikers Island that lives in Virginia? It just don’t make no common sense to anybody,” says a host of local radio station, 950 Lounge, “if you popped him in the Bronx he would get lost,” chimes in another. This is a common story across the United States – constituencies are often represented by individuals with little investment in the communities they’re elected to represent.
Rachel Lears’ Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, released worldwide today (May 1), follows the implacable women seeking to consign career congressmen like Crowley to history and replace them with engaged and committed working class voices. It focuses on the campaigns of four female challengers of well-established Congressional seats with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez front and centre. The grassroots, progressive campaigns of Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush from Missouri and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia are also followed, with varying results.
“The original concept for the film was going to be outsider candidates,” Lears tells Dazed, “but it became clear that there was a real historic wave of women running in 2018.” Her film dives in and out of the narratives of four of these women, as they push against the great bureaucratic forces of a US political system that seems designed to keep democracy at bay.
“I think that’s why a lot of people don’t vote,” says Lears, “it feels so huge and disconnected from the everyday life of most people.” But by showing campaigns that are very connected to the everyday lives and the everyday struggles of working people, the director hopes her film can act as an entry point for people intimidated by the intricacies of US politics.
“The organisations that I reached out to were recruiting people to run for congress who came from the community that they sought to represent. It wasn’t always people who wanted to run in the first place, so they were going to be the candidates that rejected corporate funds, that were running grassroots campaigns.”
“I hope the film can help fight cynicism, and help people believe that they have a voice” – Rachel Lears
None of the campaigners embody this community spirit more than 45-year-old miner’s daughter Paula Jean, who we see running for senate in West Virginia, “one of the poorest and sickest states” in the nation. “I want you guys to know one thing, West Virginians are strong, we are proud, and we won’t give up,” she says, “my name is Paula Jean, I’m running for the US Senate, and I am mad as hell.”
Each of the women running for office is driven in part by their own personal tragedies. The coal industry in Paula’s town caused multiple deaths in her family, Alexandria lost her father when she was in college, Cori Bush – running for congress in Missouri – witnessed the carnage of the 2014 Ferguson riots on her doorstep, and Amy Vilela – running in Nevada – watched as her daughter was left to die in hospital after failing to provide proof of medical insurance.
“I think every single one of these women has had very intense personal experiences of loss and hardship and adversity in their lives before they decided to run for office, and having the strength to get through those things is what gave them the strength to do this very difficult thing, to challenge a political establishment,” Lears explains. “The film is about power. It’s about what it takes to believe in yourself, what it takes to believe that you deserve to take power in the world and what it takes to build that power through collective action.”
Despite the candidates being the film’s primary focus, Knock Down the House manages to paint an interesting portrait of the wider US electorate, as the four women are filmed canvassing from door to door: “I really wanted to do something that was national in scope, to find story that involved people from different parts of the country,” Lears says. Through it all, Alexandria Ocazio Cortez’s astonishing success story shines through.
Looking forward to the 2020 US elections, “I feel cautiously optimistic,” confesses Lears, “I’m excited about it, I think it’s going to be interesting. I do think that our media has a tendency to focus on personality and less on policy and I’d love to see that change. But what we’re trying to do with the film is go into personal stories and also nuances, and hopefully get people to think, by absorbing the story, even if it’s only for 86 minutes, to think a little bit more about the political process and how they can be part of it”.
“I hope the film can help fight cynicism, and help people believe, the people who have felt disenfranchised from the democratic process or maybe feel like there’s no place for them, that they have a voice.”
You can watch Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House now on Netflix