The director who brought Coal City, Blair Mountain and Paula Jean Swearengin to Netflix stopped through South Charleston on Sunday for a special screening of her work.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition hosted a viewing of “Knock Down the House,” a political documentary that profiles Swearengin and three other progressive Democratic women running for office for the first time in 2018.
The film focuses much attention on now-Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has since become a high-profile freshman Democrat but went largely ignored by mainstream media during her primary challenge against a powerful incumbent.
While Ocasio-Cortez emerged victorious, the three other central characters in the film all went on to lose their races, including Swearengin in her challenge to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Swearengin won about 30 percent of the primary vote.
Rachel Lears, who directed the film, said while the losses weren’t necessarily politically surprising, they proved revealing of the anatomy of political machinery.
“We did always know that loss was going to be part of the story, because each of these races was an outsider candidate taking on a political machine, and that was part of the idea of the film, was let’s take a look at the way power works in this country and what it looks like to challenge it — win or lose,” she said.
The documentary spotlights a mountaintop removal site, and Swearengin driving around her hometown of Coal City and pointing to the houses of neighbors she says were diagnosed with cancer in connection to environmental pollution.
“If another country came in here and blew up our mountains and poisoned our water, we’d go to war,” Swearengin says in the documentary. “But industry can.”
Lears said while the candidates may not have emerged victorious in a political sense, they succeeded in steering the Democratic Party’s conversation into progressive turf.
“In social movements, not every battle is a victory, but it’s still part of the broader movement forward,” she said. “So every single one of these races changed the conversation, and collectively they contributed to changing the national conversation, and I think that’s really important to note. If you look at the types of stuff that’s getting talked about in Democratic primary for president in 2020, candidates are having to answer whether they take corporate funds. A lot of the policies these folks ran on were front and center.”
Likewise, Swearengin said she takes the 2018 cycle as the first step forward, more than an a failure. She said she has a political announcement to make in days to come, but declined to specify.
“I don’t feel like it’s a loss for us, it’s a beginning. You look at what happened, we made history with my campaign,” she said. “We got more votes against a sitting incumbent in 75 years.”