Politicians: Are they just like us? At first, this seems to be the central animating concern of A New Day, a political ad from Malcolm Kenyatta’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.
It begins with a shot of Kenyatta walking out of his Philly home, getting a kiss from his partner who hands him a nicely patterned cloth mask. Kenyatta’s voice narrates the entire short, telling us that the “government hasn’t worked for working families like mine.” It drifts into a montage; we see an eviction notice on a door, cooks working the line at a restaurant. But these images are ultimately extraneous to the voiceover, where Kenyatta assures us that he also knows what it’s like to see an eviction notice or to work a minimum wage job. To prove his street cred, we’re shown old photos of Kenyatta and his family as he goes through his whole history: working since the age of 12, social worker father and nurse mother, struggling to make ends meet, etc.
He tells us his story is not unique, and is in fact “familiar to Pennsylvanians all across the commonwealth, working families from Philly to Erie, Scranton to Johnstown, from Bethlehem to Uniontown.” As Kenyatta says this, we see a mixture of images of hardworking Pennsylvanians and drone shots of Pa. cities and towns. “Alright, great,” we think, understanding the fairly standard message he’s laying out for us. “Malcolm Kenyatta, he’s just like us! Malcolm Kenyatta, he knows Pennsylvania geography! Malcolm Kenyatta for PA!”
Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the ad takes a sudden, macabre turn. Kenyatta tells us that “Pennsylvania and America are at a crossroads,” a phrase paired with a shot of a railroad crossing sign in a juxtaposition so obvious and repetitive it made me wonder if Kenyatta assumed his audience has sustained anoxic brain damage before viewing the ad. From there, we’re shown footage of Charlottesville and the Jan. 6 insurrection, and then Black Lives Matter protests — all while Malcolm drones on with platitudes about “division” and facing “a question of who we want to be as a country,” along with a recognition that “what’s been broken has been broken for more than four years.”
It’s at this point in the neverending ad that my recall starts cutting out. (Probably due to the anoxic brain injury I sustained viewing this ad multiple times.) I remember staring very hard at the ad’s run-time — how could only a minute have passed? We’ve already heard all about Kenyatta’s working-class background and how he’s just like us, and how not only is he just like us but that he knows where we live! He knows all about Uniontown! Kenyatta for PA!
The nerves in my body, finely tuned by the hours I’ve spent studying the craft of political filmmaking, told me the ad had to be drawing to a close. But as German philosopher Walter Benjamin once said: “That things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe.” Kenyatta’s ad lumbers on for an additional minute, staggering towards us like a person who keeps on moving in spite of enduring fatal wounds. There is more drone footage and more clips of “real Americans” at work and home. There is more inane voiceover where Kenyatta asks us pressing questions like, “Are we going to go down the path of darkness, or are we ready to bring a new day to Pennsylvania?” And, of course, there are endless shots of Kenyatta interfacing with constituents, wearing a mask, getting a COVID test, hugging people …
And then, finally, mercifully! He tells us he is running for United States Senate, and the ad ends. But even if the ad is over, you’re left with a lingering sense of unease. The point of a catastrophe, after all, is that it just goes on.