'Knock Down The House' On Netflix Is Inspiring AF—Let's Talk About Why
As was the norm with so many Americans in my age group, I didn’t grow up hearing much about politics. I remember my parents always watching the news, but that was the extent of my home education. I want my kids to be better informed than I was.
One of my favorite tools to do this is a documentary I stumbled upon recently—Knock Down the House, on Netflix. The documentary follows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other strong female candidates as they challenge established Democrat incumbents in a midterm congressional run. The tricky thing about teaching our kids politics is, politics are tedious, infuriating, and, to a kid at least, boring. What kid wants to delve into the grinding gears of the American political machine when they could be doing just about anything else?
But Knock Down the House isn’t boring, and it isn’t really even precisely about politics, though it gives us plenty of that. It’s really a story about scrappy underdogs—about underfunded political amateurs up against wealthy established giants in a field where the wealthy established giants, usually men, always win. And best of all, it’s about women being total badasses.
The opening scene immediately caught my 10-year-old daughter’s attention. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young Latina woman just like my daughter, stands in front of a mirror, applying makeup ostensibly in preparation to go do some campaigning. She tells us it’s different for women—women get judged on every detail of dress and presentation. The men, they wear a suit jacket or they go casual and roll up their sleeves. Simple.
Ocasio-Cortez’s story is front and center, but the documentary follows the campaigns of three other women too, each with a compelling story. We learn the story of Amy Vilela, of Nevada’s 4th Congressional District, whose 22-year-old daughter died after a delay in treatment as a result of being uninsured. Vilela runs on a platform of Medicare for all.
We learn how Cori Bush of St. Louis was spurred into politics after the 2014 protests against the police shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. She runs against William Lacy Clay, a long-time rep of the Democratic party. (In the documentary, filmed in 2018, she lost. She ran again in 2020 and this time, she won.)
We follow Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter, through her West Virginia mining town as she points out the many houses where she knows someone who died of, or is currently battling, cancer. She runs for Senate against Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin III on a platform to shift West Virginia’s economy to green energy so that her beloved community will stop getting needlessly sick. The documentary shows a beautiful range in the Smoky Mountains, one side of a mountain mined away down to the dirt, all the beauty carved out of it.
Each of the four women featured are amazing in their own right, but Ocasio-Cortez, with that trademark charisma and lightning quick intellect, is who really held my kids’ attention. We see her working as a bartender, loading 5-gallon buckets of ice onto an elevator and cooly mixing martinis behind the bar, as she explains in a voiceover how working endless hours on her feet and managing difficult personalities prepared her for running a political race.
What immediately struck me about Ocasio-Cortez in Knock Down the House, and what has always struck me about her, is how unbelievably quick she is with a comeback. She is more than smart; within seconds, she seizes upon the heart of a debate, dissects it, analyzes it, and spits out a solution. Confrontation brings her to life. She calmly devours people’s disbelief in her. Her rebuttals scorch the earth.
As she watches Knock Down the House, my 10-year-old daughter is not just watching a woman achieve something great by being a total fucking badass, though she is definitely seeing that. She’s also watching a young Latina woman of modest means do this. Ocasio-Cortez is brilliant, she’s sharply dressed, she’s fearless, and she’s also real. She’s not afraid to point out her own weaknesses. At one point in the documentary she notes that her voice rises “two octaves” when she’s trying to be polite to someone.
The documentary shows two different debates between Ocasio-Cortez and her opponent Jim Crowley, the first of which he elects not to attend in person, instead sending an obviously unprepared surrogate in his place. In the second, which he no doubt felt compelled to attend after Ocasio-Cortez verbally dismembered his surrogate, she roasts him so badly that at one point his face visibly changes color and he begins unbuttoning his cuffs and rolling up his sleeves. Ocasio-Cortez verbally bludgeons him anyway. Up to this point, Crowley has been infuriatingly condescending to Ocasio-Cortez, talking down to her as if she is an adorable little wannabe politician with no chance whatsoever of presenting him with a legitimate challenge. It is clear until the moment he begins to roll up his sleeves, Crowley has gravely underestimated this woman; but by then it’s too late. My kids were utterly riveted to this scene.
There were several moments during Knock Down the House where I pressed pause so I could take a moment to explain a concept to my kids. We learned the definition of “grassroots” and got to discuss the difference between campaigns receiving fewer large donations from corporations who then expect favors in turn from their candidate, and the kinds of campaigns that are run on many small contributions from everyday people. In demonstration of this stark difference, we see Ocasio-Cortez walking the streets and talking with her constituents, compiling 10,000 signatures instead of the required 1,250 to get on the ballot because, as she tells us, they will find any reason to throw out a signature.
My kids won’t be running for office anytime soon, but this documentary was a great way to get them to see politics in action. Politics may look boring on its face—a bunch of stodgy old rich white men in suits who appear to be trying harder to keep their jobs than to govern in the best interests of the average American citizen. But the four women in Knock Down the House show us that politics is, quite literally, whatever you choose to make of it. They saw a need for change, and they showed up. And that’s definitely a lesson I want my kids to learn.
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