The local version of “Knock Down the House,” the progressive political film making waves nationally, is currently in the works in a Stapleton living room.
If you’re aware of “Knock Down the House,” the documentary directed by Rachel Lears, you know it tracked four progressive female candidates running for Congress in the 2018 midterms. The through-line of the film turned out to be the breakout candidacy — and charisma — of now U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, caught in unguarded moments as her political star shot upward.
That film had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, made the rounds of SXSW and other festivals, and was picked up by Netflix, which acquired distribution rights for $10 million.
It’s wishful thinking, but that’s the dream for “Running With My Girls,” Rebekah Henderson’s film, currently raising money on Seed and Spark. Her production company, Tan Tigress, defines itself as “a small production company with a focus on race and identity.”
A former librarian, Henderson is an outspoken activist who aims to finish her chronicle of the grassroots struggle of women of color vying for political office in Denver. If successful, the film will capture a micro/macro moment: tracking the run of three local women of color running for office in Denver while examining the global conversation about race and identity.
Henderson’s previous film, “All Mixed Up, Our Changing Racial Identities,” looked at the mixed-race experience and changing attitudes about identity. (Her husband, Denver native Ken McCorkell, is also of mixed race. He is so light-skinned he can “pass” as white. As a result, Henderson said, he has often overheard hideous racist comments and calls himself “the incogNegro.” Their son Kingston is white presenting.) Henderson has said she used to identify as black, but now that she has a fair-skinned child, she identifies as mixed race.
She also does a podcast called “Off Color,” billed as “real talk” about race, beyond the polite. And she’d like to disabuse everyone of the notion that there is such a thing as a “post-racial” America. Identity matters, she stresses, in ways the white majority can’t or doesn’t yet fully understand.
Henderson, a New York native who moved to Denver in 2008, does not lack confidence. She wears a Black Lives Matter bracelet, camouflage stretch pants and a “Running With My Girls” T-shirt as she reviews film footage at her home in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood with colleague Leah Murray, who handles marketing and fundraising on the project. (It’s not far off-topic to note the KKK-affiliated Stapleton name may come off the neighborhood this summer.)
They dream of getting Oprah Winfrey’s attention and support, but know that even a limited distribution deal would be a win.
A supporter of Lisa Calderón for mayor, Henderson was disappointed by the initial election results. Incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock was forced into a runoff with challenger Jamie Giellis; Kalyn Heffernan earned about 2%, Penfield Tate drew about 15%, Calderón managed about 18% and Giellis about 25%. Now Calderón and Tate have thrown their support to Giellis in an anti-Hancock coalition.
Like most everyone else, Henderson was surprised by the need for a run-off.
“I can’t believe we have to do this (filming, interviewing, editing, raising money) for another month,” she said earlier this month, looking toward the June 4 runoff. “I thought they’d win outright,” she said, meaning “her girls” — Calderon, and Denver City Council candidates Candi CdeBaca and Veronica Barela. The latter two face run-off elections in District 9 and 3, respectively.
Just as “Knock Down the House” found its star in AOC, Henderson’s local production has landed on a central character. It will follow CdeBaca in particular in the District 9 runoff against Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks. CdeBaca is challenging the African American incumbent, who is running for his third and final term; the Latina CdeBaca has lived in Denver’s Swansea neighborhood most of her life and has led the fight against gentrification and CDOT’s Interstate 70 expansion.
Michael Moore + W. Kamau Bell = Rebekah Henderson
Henderson is upfront about her rather personal filmmaking approach. There is no pretense of journalistic objectivity here.
She is a friend and supporter of several of the candidates, particularly Calderón, who ran as “a biracial woman born to teenage parents — a Mexican American mother and African American father.” Henderson knows she’s not making a pure documentary. Her home is decorated with Calderón campaign signs. She made a video for and gets B-roll from the Calderón campaign.
“I’ve had a beyond-front-row seat because of personal relationships,” she says. Her style is advocacy plus insight with a hint of humor. “If Michael Moore and W. Kamau Bell had a baby, that would be me.”
The tone, she said, is going to be personal and progressive: “It’s about me identifying what it will take to move things forward.”
As the clock ticks toward the June 4 runoff, Henderson reflected on the initial election results: “It all came down to money and race.” Beyond who wins or loses, what she believes the city will see coming out of this contentious race is “a lot of black and brown political consultants.”
Calderón echoes the idea that Denver and Colorado in general lack those specific experienced political types. “The contrast for me, with ‘Knock Down the House,’ is they had infrastructure,” she said. “We don’t have that here, a mechanism that kicks in to show you how to fundraise, how to manage your messaging. Women of color, first-time and grassroots candidates are writing their own script.”
Where is the blueprint for running for office?
Of course, there are groups at the national level who are practiced in running campaigns for women of color, Calderón said, but those groups focus on upstream races. “You have to start downstream if you want those women to get to Congress. RTD, school board, city council, mayor — we should be investing to help women of color build a pipeline. We’re not investing in women of color. It floors me.”
Candidate CdeBaca said she wishes there were a blueprint for women of color running for office. The minute you sign your name on documents for the Denver Elections Division to run, she added, you are bombarded with offers for everything from campaign management to yard signs, some from folks who aren’t even local.
“Most of us were challenged through the process to find people who understood,” CdeBaca said. “There really is a racket out there, it’s hard to find people with a goal beyond making money off a campaign.”
She wanted to participate in the film because “it’s a no-brainer as a first-time candidate,” and also “to pay it forward,” to help future female candidates of color.
Calderón, who was outspent by the incumbent Mayor Hancock by 20-to-1, noted the media has not been interested in the backstory of what it takes for women of color to take on the establishment.
“The needs for women candidates of color are different and it has to do with some cultural norms,” Henderson said. She called it “uncharted territory… All the people I was following with the exception of Veronica (Barela) had white managers.” Barela will face Jamie Torres in the runoff for District 3.
Among the questions Henderson poses in the fundraising pitch for “Running With My Girls” are the following:
“Who cares about a black single mother running for local city council?” (with a photo of Shayla Richard); “Why should it matter that a queer black woman is running for the Denver Transit Board?” (with a photo of Shontel Lewis and her partner); “Why should people pay attention to a Latinx woman born in one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the United States who is running for office?” (beside a photo of CdeBaca), and “Why does it matter that Denver has never had a woman mayor and has the chance to elect an Afro Latina?” (with a picture of Calderón surrounded by supporters.)
Those questions sparked a stream of funding contributions —currently at almost $22,000. While the focus is Denver, the themes are universal, Henderson said: “Representation, struggle, dismantling racism and uplifting the voices of women of color in politics.”
She wants to explore what it’s actually like to run a political race as a woman of color in Denver, a primarily white city.
“It’s different for white women,” she said, “it’s different for men. It’s especially different for white men…In Colorado, the lower we go in our state government the whiter it gets. We have black and Latino legislators, that seems pretty good for Colorado, but when you start looking at it, you see how different it looks at every level.”
Denver seems diverse, she added, but isn’t really. “We need more progressive people of color managing campaigns versus traditional establishment people of color. For instance, we have a mayor who is black but he is not particularly progressive.”
Viewers may see the inspiration for Henderson’s film reflected in CdeBaca’s starring role in “Running With My Girls.” The candidate said is glad she watched “Knock Down the House” in preparation for her run.
“We went through the same exact things, watching that cohort of women get narrowed to one,” she said. “It was good emotional preparation.”