Knock Down the House: The Mainstreaming of Women’s Political Rise

Rachel Lears is Director, Producer, and Cinematographer of Knock Down the House. (photo credit: International Documentary Association)

I am always keeping an eye out for instances of feminism breaking through to mainstream culture. So when Netflix decided to make its biggest payment ever of $10 million to buy the rights to Knock Down the House, I was eager to learn about how this film came about. How did this relatively new film team suddenly find itself poised to reach Netflix’s estimated 148 million subscribers?

Knock Down the House follows four progressive women who made it into the U.S. Congress in the 2018 elections, inviting viewers to witness the progression of their historic journeys into politics. Just weeks ago, it won Best Documentary Film for 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival.

From the movie’s description:

When her daughter died from a preventable medical condition, businesswoman Amy Vilela of Las Vegas didn’t know what to do with her anger about America’s broken health care system. Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to work double shifts in a restaurant to save her family’s home from foreclosure after losing her father. Cori Bush, a Saint Louis nurse, was drawn into the streets when the shooting of Michael Brown brought protests and tanks into her neighborhood. Paula Jean Swearengin buried family and neighbors to illnesses caused by West Virginia’s coal industry — and worries her children will be next. All four women understood that their lives were affected by politics, but none had considered running for office themselves. Until now.

These four women made it all the way to Congress by recognizing that their greatest strength was their real world experiences in America.  With the help of two particularly effective grassroots organizations– Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress — these four women found a way to realize the dream of better leadership from women.

I can’t wait to see Knock Down the House when it becomes available. In the meantime, let’s analyze how this film about women’s political leadership made its way into the mainstream. Who were the supporters who made this film possible? How did grantmaking institutions like Sundance play a role, and how did funders of Sundance pushing for more diversity and inclusion play a role?

The film garnered significant support online from crowdfunding efforts, with 424 donors on Kickstarter ($28,111 total) and 86 donors on the Independent Film Project, where it was an Enterprise Documentary Fund Grantee.

Both the Producer/ Director/Cinematographer Rachel Lears and the Producer/Editor Robin Blotnick were Sundance Fellows in 2013, and having support from Sundance early was likely an important contributing factor to this film’s success. The push for gender equality at Sundance has been steadily growing over the past two decades. Current trustees of Sundance include Jacki Zehner (also a supporter of Philanthropy Women), Pat Mitchell, Ava DuVernay, and Gigi Pritzker. Other outspoken women leaders in film are among the Emeritus Trustees of Sundance, include actress Sally Field and philanthropist Mellody Hobson.

The confluence of the creators of Knock Down the House receiving support from Sundance, along with Sundance’s own efforts at increasing diversity, likely contributed to this film’s gaining traction as it headed for its $10 million contract with Netflix.

Sundance receives foundation support from the Harnisch Foundation (also a supporter of Philanthropy Women) as well as many, many foundations that are included on this list.  Foundations on this list range from the very large, including Rockefeller, Kellogg, Ford, Open Society, and Surdna, to community foundations like Silicon Valley Community Foundation, to family foundations like the Gruber Family Foundation, and foundations related to specific entertainers like the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund and the Robert and Chaz Ebert Foundation.

The Harnisch Foundation in particular has pushed Sundance further in the direction of diversity by providing “leadership support” for Women at Sundance, an initiative to develop women’s participation as directors, producers, writers, editors, and as chiefs of photography in the film industry. New York-based media outlet Refinery29 also provides leadership support for Women at Sundance.

Many other factors contributed to the success of Knock Down the House — the talent and hard work of its filmmaking team being first and foremost. The historic timing of the rise of women in politics probably also factored in to this film rocketing up to the highest payout ever from Netflix. But the story of its success also contains a lesson in how feminist philanthropists are having an influence on mainstream culture. The success of Knock Down the House provides a striking example of women in philanthropy helping to make the rise of women in politics more visible, and consequently, more possible.

Check out the trailer for Knock Down the House below.

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Kiersten Marek

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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