Netflix’s New Documentary Tells the Stories Behind the Year of the Woman

“For one of us to make it through,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explains to another candidate on the phone, “a hundred of us have to try.”

In Knock Down the House, Netflix introduces us to four of the women who did.

The new documentary, out today from Director Rachel Lears, follows four women candidates who challenged incumbents and ran campaigns funded by grassroots donors during the 2018 primaries.

Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia didn’t win their races; New York’s own Ocasio-Cortez, now a rising star in the House, took hers by storm. But the four women can hardly be labeled winners and losers. Instead, the reverberating impact of their pushes to claim power—and demand accountability—are what make the film weaving their stories together so damn powerful.

Director Rachel Lear brings viewers onto the frontlines of the four primary campaigns, each shaped by their own unique geographic and sociopolitical circumstances but defined all the same by the women at their helm. Their stories are powerful, and they also bring to life what experts know to be true about female leadership in politics.

The four women in Knock Down the House are not running because they have been told they deserve to run, and they aren’t competing because they were bred to pursue higher office. They ran because their communities were invisible, because their families were suffering—and because nobody else was standing up for them.

Vilela leaves her life as a CFO behind and enters politics after her daughter dies because she was sent to a hospital but had no proof of insurance. Swearengin, a miners’ daughter, runs because she is exhausted and infuriated by the coal-fueled destruction permanently altering the landscape of Appalachia—and the lives bound up in it by economic factors. Bush runs because she saw the fallout of Michael Brown’s killing by police in Ferguson up-close, and she wants the calls for justice echoing in the streets to reach Capitol Hill. Ocasio-Cortez, who walked away from a non-profit job in order to become a breadwinner for her family after her father’s death, ran because her district was represented by a man who hadn’t even lived there in years.

“Being a single mom, and on welfare, and on WIC, and on medicaid, at the time, and just struggling—when we’re struggling like that, we don’t have time to get involved or be activated,” Vilela explained to the crowd at an advance screening of the film at Netflix HQ. “We’re so busy with the day-to-day struggle that we don’t have time to be politically involved.”

But that was before Shalynne went to the hospital in the summer of 2015. “I thought I was safe until my daughter died,” Vilela declared. “She gave me a gift when she died: She reminded me that we’re only as strong and safe as the most vulnerable in our community. I knew that if I stayed silent, I was an accomplice—and if it wasn’t me, who would it be?” She pauses. “It was the beginning of the politicalization of Amy Vilela.”

Joseph Crowley, the powerful Democratic lawmaker who was taken down by AOC’s primary challenge—the first he had faced in 14 years—was part of what AOC often referred to as “the machine,” and so were men like Joe Manchin who were challenged by the other women in Knock Down the House. But the women in the documentary knew exactly what it took to win when you were facing one down. “You meet a machine,” AOC explains in the film, “with a movement.”

Knock Down The House by Rachel Lears is an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and by Rachel Lears.)

True to anecdotal evidence, each women in Knock Down the House mounts her own. Viewers watch as the women in the documentary play the part of candidate as quickly as they become organizers in their own right. Bush stages photos in her own neighborhood, in her own clothes, refusing to entertain a standard which has excluded women like her from public life for too long. Swearengin chops up errant tree branches on the side of a mountain road to clear space for a press conference. Vilela’s team spray-paints their own signs, and she bankrupts herself to keep the campaign afloat. Ocasio-Cortez slugs between shifts to half-empty debate halls and traverses the entirety of the Bronx just to introduce herself to voters.

“When [Lears] first approached me, I was a little bit nervous,” Vilela admitted at the press screening. “My first reaction was: Why the hell is she interested in my race? Then it was more of a little bit of fear—opening yourself up, making yourself vulnerable, showing that other side of it, that was kind of scary.”

Of course, Vilela was no stranger to fear. “It’s vulnerable anyway to be running for office—to know that people are laughing at you, angry at you.” Neither were her counterparts.

The three women in Knock Down the House who lost their races haven’t faded into the background. They didn’t run just to win—they also ran to make an impact, and raise conversations. (On election night, when Swearengin took a call from her opponent in the wake of his victory, she had only one declaration for him: “People are dying.”) They ran to form support networks across the country for one another.

Bush announced at the film’s Sundance premiere that she is running again. Vilela and Swearengin are deciding which race to enter next. And of course, AOC is blazing trails on Capitol Hill—leading the fight for a Green New Deal, taking on her peers on Twitter and during session in the chamber and refusing to capitulate to the notion that women like her, or candidates like her, don’t belong in politics.

“I’m a third-generation Bronxite, I’m a Latina, I am a buriqua, I am a descendent of Taino Indians, I am a descendant of African slaves, I am proud to be an American,” AOC yells into a bullhorn mic in one scene from Knock Down the House. “But we have to rise to that promise.”

“This film is really about the connection between money in politics and representation in politics,” Lear told the audience at Netflix HQ, “and how if you care about one you have to care about the other.”

That’s a message that transcends headlines about the Year of the Woman—and one that extends beyond the boundaries of the U.S. Knock Down the Housewill be translated into 28 languages, dubbed into 10 and broadcast across Netflix’s global platform. Community screenings beginning this week will take shape around the world, with conversation guides and curriculum to guide viewers toward transformative conversations and call them to become more involved. (To host a screening, go to knockdownthehouse.com.)

“We believe that this film can really change conversations,” producer Sarah Olson declared, “change minds, encourage civic engagement and just encourage people to question where they stand on representation, on money in politics, on power.”

Knock Down the House is a certain reminder of the power women have to transform the structures that attempt to silence them—and any feminist would be hard-pressed to watch it without being overwhelmed by the urge to act on it.

About

Carmen Rios is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. and has spent over a decade raising hell in feminist media. Her work has been published by outlets like the Atlantic's CityLab, BuzzFeed, ElixHER, Feministing, Girlboss, Mic, MEL and Everyday Feminism; and she also spent six years writing and editing for Autostraddle, was a founding blogger and activist with the SPARK Movement and was the inaugural managing editor of THE LINE Campaign blog. Carmen is additionally a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine.