Rachel Lears didn’t set out to make a film about women in politics – but Knock Down the House has become one of the most talked-about documentaries of 2019. Stylist speaks to the director about Trump, class and why she wanted the film to wear its feminism lightly.
Early on in Rachel Lears’ new Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, we see a young woman enter a Mexican restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her dark hair is pulled back from her bare face; she wears a black bomber jacket, skinny jeans and trainers. As she walks in, she greets the other staff in Spanish, then heads down to the basement to haul up a bucket of ice. She seems warm and bright, but she’s not obviously remarkable. If she served you a margarita in that dark bar, you might not remember her the next day.
The bartender is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became the youngest woman ever to be elected to the United States Congress in November 2018. Today, the fact that AOC was working behind a bar when she first began her run for Congress has become a core part of her mythology. She’s cool. She’s proudly progressive. And she used to be a bartender. These nuggets are used to describe Ocasio-Cortez so often that, less than a year after she shot to international fame, they are close to becoming clichés.
Despite this, there’s something startlingly intimate about watching a political superstar clear tables and lug buckets of ice around, more than a year before she won the election that would change her life forever. Viewers of Knock Down the House will know that in June 2018, Ocasio-Cortez beat her rival Joe Crowley – a powerful Democratic incumbent who had served as a New York congressman since 1999 – in a primary election, meaning that (since no Republicans were running in that district) she was guaranteed a seat in Congress.
But the version of Ocasio-Cortez that you see in Lears’ documentary doesn’t know she’ll win. She is deeply passionate about her mission, but she is also green and nervous – about knocking on doors, about approaching people on the street about her campaign. And she is acutely aware that most people don’t think she stands a chance. Before she debates Crowley live on TV, we see her sitting on her sofa in the tiny flat she shares with her boyfriend, repeating confidence-boosting mantras.
“I am experienced enough to do this,” she says, breathing deeply. “I am knowledgeable enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this.” Once the cameras are rolling, she wipes the floor with Crowley.
Knock Down the House makes clear that US political media almost universally underestimated Ocasio-Cortez. And she wasn’t the only woman running in the midterm elections to be misjudged. A record number of female candidates stood in the elections last autumn, including a 75% increase in women of colour. Three of these candidates also feature in Knock Down the House, rightly occupying just as much screen time as AOC: Paula Jean Swearengin from West Virginia, Amy Vilela from Nevada and Cori Bush from Missouri.
All four women “felt like they had a higher bar to clear because of aspects of their identity: being working class, being women, and in some cases being women of colour,” Lears tells Stylist. “It wasn’t so much a specific thing to overcome as [much as it was] the basic ground that they walked on every day. You don’t notice it all the time, but it’s there.”
AOC is undoubtedly the breakout star of the documentary, but Lears emphasises that all four candidates possess that special something that makes someone a truly good politician. Swearengin, Vilela, Bush and Ocasio-Cortez have long supported one another in speeches, on social media and at organising meetings, and the director never considered making a film about just one candidate. If AOC didn’t know for sure in 2017 that she’d be going to Congress, neither did Lears.
“At the beginning of the project, I certainly didn’t have some sort of premonition, like, ‘Oh, this is the one who can become a star,’” she says. “No one had any idea what was going to happen, and the fire that I saw in Alexandria I saw in Amy, Cori and Paula as well.
“The relationship between them was really significant, both as part of the personal story and as a political project of building solidarity.”
Lears, a documentary filmmaker from New York, didn’t initially set out to make a film about women running in the midterms. She knew she wanted to make a documentary “that could really contribute to the national political conversation” after Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016, but the project didn’t originally have a female angle. She had heard about two organisations, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, which were helping recruit ordinary people to run for Congress in the 2018 midterms, and thought it would be interesting to make a film about “political outsiders”: grassroots campaigns that weren’t relying on money from corporate donors.
It was after Lears met Bush, Vilela, Swearengin and Ocasio-Cortez – all of whom were supported by Justice Democrats and/or Brand New Congress – that the idea of making a film about working-class female candidates began to take shape. In less sophisticated hands than Lears’, a documentary about the so-called ‘women’s wave’ could easily tip into something trite, in which the women were lumped together as a homogeneous group of Badass Bitches out to Take Down Trump.
But the documentary wears its feminism lightly – and in doing so, avoids the feminism-lite trap. “I wanted the feminist aspect of the film, and its commentary on gender issues, to come through organically in the course of the story,” says Lears.
And so we see the gendered barriers that the women have to overcome, but we also learn about their own, deeply personal reasons for running. The primary goal of Swearengin, a coalminer’s daughter, is to halt the degradation of West Virginia’s natural environment. A personal tragedy motivates Vilela to push for universal healthcare. Bush is a mental health nurse and pastor who helped lead protests in Ferguson following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Ocasio-Cortez is frustrated by Crowley’s failure to properly represent the interests of working people in the Bronx. They are women, but there’s much more to their stories than that.
Perhaps the most unexpected and thrilling part of Knock Down the House is that Trump’s name is almost never mentioned. In fact, he only comes up once – when Ocasio-Cortez rolls her eyes at Crowley’s campaign leaflet, which sells him as someone who’ll take on Trump without outlining any specific policy proposals.
The decision to ignore the narcissist-in-chief was a deliberate one. “He doesn’t need any more coverage,” Lears says. The president is the source of many problems, she continues, but he is also “the symptom, rather than the cause” of countless others – and it is these issues that she was interested in exploring. “We wanted to highlight the aspects of this story that really don’t have anything to do with him,” she says.
And while many of 2018’s first-time candidates may have run because their communities felt personally threatened by the Trump administration, Lears believes that Vilela, Bush, Swearengin and Ocasio-Cortez “very well might have run anyway”.
“Ultimately, these candidates are not just fighting to restore whatever order existed before he was elected,” she says. “They’re trying to move the country forward.”
Knock Down the House is available to watch on Netflix from 1 May.