Behind the scenes with Ocasio-Cortez in new Netflix documentary 'Knock Down the House'

From bartender to congresswoman: "Knock Down the House" tells the story of the New Yorker's stunning upset — with rare glimpses of her moments self-doubt.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."Netflix

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — Just two years ago, a typical day for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez involved collecting signatures to get on the ballot for her New York City congressional race in the morning before reporting to her job as a bartender at a taco restaurant in the afternoon.

A new documentary shows how she'd go downstairs to the restaurant's basement and lean into a giant ice machine to scoop cubes into a bucket before hauling them back upstairs — and the then-27-year-old was well aware of how ridiculous it all looked.

"If I were, like, a normal, rational person, I would have dropped out this race a long time ago," Ocasio-Cortez says in the feature-length documentary, "Knock Down the House," set to premiere on Netflix and in select theaters on Wednesday.

"People don't see waitresses as having a quote-un-quote real job, but my experience in hospitality has prepared me so well for this race: I'm used to being on my feet 18 hours a day. I'm used to receiving a lot of heat. I'm used to people trying to make me feel bad," she added.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."Netflix

Rachel Lears' film, which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, follows Ocasio-Cortez and three other progressive insurgent women candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, and the group supporting them, Justice Democrats.

Ocasio-Cortez is the movie's star. The presence of the other three candidates — all of whom lost their races — only serves to underscore how compelling a figure Ocasio-Cortez is in contrast.

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By narrowly beating former Rep. Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress who had served for two decades, Ocasio-Cortez made herself into a superstar virtually overnight and this film joins the ranks of insightful political documentaries like "Street Fight," the story of Cory Booker's mayoral campaign in Newark, and "Running with Beto," which won the audience award at South by Southwest and will be released by HBO on May 29.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."Netflix

Ocasio-Cortez's detractors will find little to love in "Knock Down the House" since it adopts her point and is nothing but flattering.

There is, however, plenty of fodder to portray Crowley as an out-of-touch, asleep-at-the-wheel pol, "campaigning from inside his kingdom," as Ocasio-Cortez puts it. He was in line to Speaker of House and lived mostly outside Washington. So when he shows up at a gay pride parade in his Queens and Bronx district, a marcher seemed surprised to see him.

"Re-election time, huh?" the man says in the film.

"Hey, you know, every so often," Crowley replies.

Later, when another man at the parade says he would never vote for "that stupid woman," Crowley laughs before admonishing him, "She's not stupid, but thank you."

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House."Netflix

As dauntless as she appears in public, Ocasio-Cortez allows herself moments of self-doubt when alone with her boyfriend, a quiet but constant presence in the film, who rarely speaks other than to offer support or encouragement.

Preparing for her only televised debate with Crowley in her tiny apartment with a bowl of soup and a highlighter, Ocasio-Cortez gives herself a Stuart Smalley-like pep talk.

"I can do this. I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgeable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this," she says.

By the time election night rolls around, we see the other three candidates, by this point reduced to minor supporting roles, get the bad news about their races before building to the main event back in New York City.

Ocasio-Cortez is a ball of nerves all night, and when the news comes down that she's won, her supporters cheer and dance in jubilation, while the camera finds Ocasio-Cortez frozen among the crowd, with one hand gripping the bar for support and the other covering her mouth.

Days later, sitting outside the Capitol with tears streaming down her face, she recalls how her father once took her to Washington and said, "This all belongs to us. It's our government...All of this stuff is yours."

Then she hopped on an electric scooter with her boyfriend and tooled around the plaza behind the Capitol, a giant smile plastered to her face.