As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comes under fresh attack, Netflix doc 'Knock Down the House' makes case for her relevance
Director Rachel Lears documents AOC and three other 'insurgent' Democratic women candidates in prize-winning film
Every day, it seems, brings a fresh attack from the right upon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, freshman Congresswoman from New York. Today, it was Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida (he of the $1.7 billion Medicare fraud), who suggested AOC was "irrelevant," during a Twitter tit-for-tat that began with Scott blasting a gun control proposal from Sen. Cory Booker, a Democratic presidential hopeful.
"That a sitting US Senator can say something lacking so much critical thinking + honesty is embarrassing to the institution," AOC tweeted of Scott at one point. Beware anyone who attempts to ridicule her online--she doesn't let it slide.
"She has said that her upbringing in the Bronx and her family has really helped her just to roll with the criticism and turn things into humor and clapbacks," notes Rachel Lears, director of the documentary Knock Down the House, now streaming on Netflix and playing in limited theatrical release. It shows how Ocasio-Cortez and three other long-shot Democratic women candidates took on entrenched incumbents in the 2016 primaries.
Lears began following Ocasio-Cortez long before she became "AOC" and a national political phenomenon. At the time her cameras started rolling, Ocasio-Cortez was working as a waitress and bartender in Manhattan, using what free time she had to mount a challenge to Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in the House who hadn't faced a primary challenger in over a decade. But Ocasio-Cortez had a smart strategy.
"When you run a grassroots campaign these campaigns are all about engaging voters who don't usually participate in mid-term primaries, so broadening the electorate, bringing in young people and marginalized communities, people who may don't pay attention to mid-term primaries or who don't always vote," Lears explains. "And when you do that all bets are off. Polls only poll likely voters--people who have voted in every primary in the past several years, so it's really hard to know what's going to happen."
AOC was recruited to run by Brand New Congress, a progressive organization that also backed the candidacies of Cori Bush (Missouri's 1st Congressional district); Amy Vilela (Nevada's 4th Congressional district), and Paula Jean Swearingen, a candidate for U.S. Senate from West Virginia, who ran against incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin. All of the women are profiled in Knock Down the House, but only Ocasio-Cortez prevailed in her race.
Brand New Congress continues to seek bold new voices to run for office on a progressive platform, a goal Lears supports through her documentary.
"I definitely hope [KDTH] inspires people to take that leap and take on that challenge," she tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "But I also hope it can really fight cynicism at all levels and inspire people to participate in some way whatever their capacity is--whether it's voting or becoming involved in electoral campaigns or community organizing campaigns or even just something as personal as advocating for themselves in the workplace or in their personal life."
Knock Down the House premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it triggered a bidding war, selling to Netflix for a reported $10 million. Lears says she and her producing team went with Netflix for several reasons.
"People who usually don't watch documentaries in the theater might watch a documentary on Netflix, so there is opportunity there to reach people. And they also had the simplest program for education and community screenings," Lears comments. "With our day and date release we're going to be in theaters in 11 cities... and also available for community and educational screenings at the same time."
Among the people the director hopes to reach with her film are people on the other side of the aisle from AOC.
"We've had people come up to us after screenings, multiple times--people who identify as lifelong Republicans or Trump voters, male and female--who explained that they had a lot of misconceptions that they felt were challenged by the film and that they really identified with the story and really enjoyed and were moved by it in ways that they didn't expect," Lears notes. "And so we're incredibly excited for that potential to reach those viewers... We really hope they'll give this film a chance."
Filmmakers and subjects of "Knock Down the House" attend the world premiere of the documentary at Sundance. L-R producer Sarah Olson, subject Paula Jean Swearingen, subject Amy Vilela, director Rachel Lears, subject Cori Bush, and producer/editor Robin Blotnick. Park City, Utah, January 27, 2019. Photo by Matt Carey
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.