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'Knock Down The House,' Follows 4 Female Political Insurgents Headed To Congress


When filmmaker Rachel Lears decided to make a film about four women running in the 2018 midterms, almost nobody had heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: In the beginning, the fundamental question is, like, why you? Why do you think you can do this? The reason why was because nobody else would.

MARTIN: But the rest, as they say, is history. But before that history was made, before voters sent the most women and most people of color to Congress in history, and before AOC became so famous we only need her initials to talk about her, there was the long, hard slog of a campaign - all the more of a slog for all of the newcomers. And that is the story of a new Netflix documentary called "Knock Down The House." It follows the primary campaigns of AOC, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin as they each tried to win a seat in the 2018 elections, in 3 of the 4 cases by taking on an incumbent. One of those candidates, Cori Bush, is with us now. She ran to represent Missouri's 1st District in the Democratic congressional primary. She's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

CORI BUSH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And we're also joined by director Rachel Lears.

Rachel, welcome to you as well.

RACHEL LEARS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Cori, I'm going to start by asking you the big question that was posed in my introduction, which is, you know, why you? Why that race? Why then?

BUSH: So me - because I'm an everyday person. I'm a working single parent and someone who has been affected by the policies that come out of D.C., someone who has walked through the things that other people in my district have walked through. And so it was time for somebody to stand up to say, hey - put some focus on us. Put some focus on the people that actually live this out.

And for me, coming from the Ferguson movement, being an activist right there on the front lines, on the streets, I felt, like, seeing representatives come by and do photo ops while we were out getting our butts kicked - let's just be real - I felt like somebody from the community that loves the community enough to lay their life on the line should be seated in those seats. And the only way to do it is to run.

MARTIN: So, Rachel, I was curious about the fact that the races that you picked - these were all candidates who were not trying to flip seats. They were all taking - they were Democrats taking on Democrats. I was curious about that.

LEARS: Yeah. Well, originally, this project didn't set out to focus on one party or the other. And I also wasn't necessarily going to focus only on women. But as I interviewed candidates, these four really stood out to me for their personal stories. They happened to all be Democrats. Two of them actually were in swing districts and two of them in solidly Democratic districts. With the way the film plays out, there isn't a competitive general election race in the film between a Republican and a Democrat.

So that allows us to really explore the themes of the relationships between money and grassroots movements and political parties. And it's not about left versus right. It's really about up and down and what it would mean for regular working people to have representation in our federal government.

MARTIN: With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I think people have absorbed the storyline. Here's this young Latina going up against this older white male who seems, like, out of touch - doesn't seem to really visit the district a lot. You know, whether that's fair or unfair, that's how it came across. And, frankly, that was a factor in her winning.

Cori, in your case, you're running against another African American. And you weren't just running against a powerful incumbent. You were actually kind of running against something of a dynasty that William Lacy Clay - the Clays had been running in your district since 1969. They have a long political history. And I was curious for you, if as an African American woman, there was any little extra fraught-ness.

BUSH: (Laughter).

MARTIN: As an African American woman, you were running against an African American man, the idea that there's this intragroup, not just intraparty rivalry - I don't know. Was that a factor in your race? Was that something that was even a factor in your thinking? Like, how would people feel about that?

BUSH: Yeah. So initially, when I was asked to run, I said no. And one of the reasons why is because my father's been in politics my whole life, basically, and he was a supporter of the Clay family. I even canvassed as a child for the Clay family. So that was more the issue. But once I realized that, you know what? The only way to make this change is to step out. And so I said yes, and I decided to go ahead and run. Initially, people would say, you know, well, you're a black woman. Why would you run against a black man? You know, black women take care of the black man. And I'm, like, I've been doing that my whole life, so stop with that.

But it shouldn't be about making sure that I don't run against another black person. It's about making sure that my community is taken care of. That's first and foremost for me. And so if my community's not being taken care of, somebody has to step out and do it. It's not about a dynasty. It's not about legacy. It's about leadership.

And for somebody that's been out there on the ground taking care of the community - I live in St. Louis. I went to grade school, high school. I went - did my college work in St. Louis, unlike the incumbent. And so for me, somebody that knows the streets, that's touched the streets, that's bled in those streets should be seated in that seat because we're the ones that actually care about that community in a way that no one else that has not had to walk that out can.

MARTIN: Do you feel that your gender played a role in what happened? And it's - I think many people will have figured out by now that I did not address you as Congresswoman Bush - that you didn't win.

BUSH: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Do you think that gender was a factor? In fact, before I ask you to answer that question, I'm going to play a clip from you in the film where you talk about the fact that women are subjected to a higher degree of scrutiny.


BUSH: Being a woman of color, our image is really scrutinized. You have to speak like this. You have to dress like this. I decided that, yeah, I don't care.

MARTIN: So, Cori, when all is said and done, what do you think? Do you think that gender played a role in how things turned out in your district?

BUSH: In a way. So I heard some really strange things. I would hear that I shouldn't run for this seat because I'm an unmarried woman, that I should not be in such a powerful seat without a head. If a...

MARTIN: Without a head.

BUSH: Without a head - you know, the head of the house. Yes.

MARTIN: The head of the house, OK.

BUSH: Yeah. They'll say that, you know, women - we do erratic things when we don't have a head. Yeah, that was said to me several times. Also - my hips. I was trolled about the way I look. I was troubled about my hips all over social media, the fact that I am a dark-skinned woman. So I was - there was more talk about my hair, wearing braids. I didn't look the part, you know. I would come dressed as a nurse. I would come in scrubs sometimes to community events when I wasn't speaking. And so just those things.

And I would wonder, do you treat men like this? No. Do you talk about a man's hair? Do you talk about his hips and how he looks in pants? Do you tell him you have to wear dark-colored pants? I would hear that. Don't wear light-colored, wear dark colors because your hips are too big.


BUSH: You know, yes.


BUSH: Yes.

MARTIN: So one of the reasons I ask is that now, as we are heading into the 2020 elections, there is again this unprecedented diversity in the presidential field on the Democratic side. And yet, again, the whole electability question is coming to the fore. Like, based on your experience, you know, what do you think?

BUSH: So looking at the issues, looking at the policies, but not only that, I'm a firm believer in looking at what the person was doing before they decided to run. You know, what kind of background did that person have? And I believe in people evolving. But I like to see, what was your real work? Not the work you were getting paid for, either. So because that makes a difference to me.

The work that I've done in my community, I did it for free. You know, I worked as a nurse during the day. And at night and on weekends, that was my activism. That was my work just because of my love of humanity. So what is your passion? What do you do outside of that which you get paid for? And so I think we should be looking at that when we're looking at presidential candidates.

MARTIN: And, Rachel, what do you think about the fact that 3 of the 4 candidates you chose to profile did not succeed? Does that say anything to you?

LEARS: Well, we always knew that this film was going to explore loss at some level. We knew it was a very real possibility that all four of the candidates would lose. So what we really wanted to do was to explore how power works in this country. I think it's really interesting that we're seeing now in the 2020 election a lot of conversation about the issue of taking corporate PAC money and lobbyist funding.

You have to really look carefully. A number of candidates that have made that pledge are actually finding loopholes and ways to take some of that funding anyway. But the fact that they're having to answer that question and talk about what accountability to voters looks like, I think that's very important. And I think that's the legacy of this wave of courageous individuals who ran in 2018. I think that's what that looks like now.

MARTIN: And, Cori, what do you want people to draw from the film? Because, you know, just looking at the odds from this film, like, 3 of the 4 candidates didn't succeed, one did - what do you want people to draw from this film, and from your experience, for that matter?

BUSH: Well, one thing is understanding what success looks like. You know, just because we may not have taken the seat - those seats at that time doesn't mean we never will, one. No. 2, everyday people were able to make change. We're just regular everyday folks. And we were able to do something great for our communities. So take from it that you can be who you are. Stay with your mission.

You know, that's something that I preach all the time. Keep your mission. Know your mission. Chew on it, digest it and then put that mission out there. Be fearless. Be courageous in what you believe your purpose is. You know, for me, our website from the last race is now in the - archived in the Library of Congress. You know, I would have never thought anything like that would happen. But it's all because we stuck up, we stood out and we wanted to stand up for our communities.

MARTIN: That was Cori Bush. She ran to represent Missouri's 1st District in the 2018 Democratic congressional primary. She's featured in Rachel Lears' new film, "Knock Down The House." It's available now to stream on Netflix. And Cori Bush and Rachel Lears were both with us from our bureau in New York. Cori, Rachel, Thank you both so much for joining us.

LEARS: Thank you so much, Michel.

BUSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.