It’s easy to fall in love with Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, the star of Timothy Harris’s Kenyatta: Do Not Wait Your Turn (★★★★☆, CRITIC’S PICK), a behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling some of the key moments from the Philadelphia Democrat’s 2022 U.S. Senate campaign.
Harris’s storytelling, and the way in which he introduces his protagonist in the film’s first few minutes — juxtaposing Kenyatta’s pitch to Democratic State Committee members with those of his chief primary opponents — is so compelling that viewers are likely to find themselves drawn to, and perhaps even silently cheering for, Kenyatta.
In the film, Kenyatta occupies the role of undisputed underdog in the Senate race. His two foes for his party’s nomination — now-U.S. Sen. John Fetterman and U.S. Congressman Conor Lamb — have the money, the name recognition, the carefully-cultivated political profiles, the arguments about what makes them “electable” in a swing state, the backing of state party officials, and a class of fawning pundits ready to spin the facts in their favor.
By contrast, Kenyatta is a gay Black man, representing a district marred by gun violence, where the average income is a meager $9,000 a year — the third poorest in the entire state.
He does not have a class of donors on which he can rely to fund his campaign. His name recognition, especially to casual voters, is nonexistent. He’s significantly to the left of both the populist Fetterman and the telegenic, corporate-style Democrat Lamb. But what sets him apart are his fervent progressive beliefs, and a speaking-style that is both engaging and uplifting.
After being treated to a short primer on the politics of Pennsylvania, director Harris outlines the stakes for the upcoming federal election, casting the seat as the one on which control of the U.S. Senate hinges. National and local Democrats, from the party elites to rank-and-file voters, are almost rabid in their desire to win the seat at all costs. But first they must answer the question: Which candidate has the surest chance of winning the general election?
Embracing a cinéma vérité style of filmmaking, Harris examines a multitude of issues influencing political campaigns, gently, yet constantly, nudging and prodding viewers to examine, or re-examine, the very concept of “electability.” He casts the traditional political wisdom of who is viewed as “electable” as deeply flawed, and heavily influenced by latent racial and class biases.
Throughout, Kenyatta serves as the “everyman,” a stand-in for Americans without proximity to wealth or power. It’s through Kenyatta’s eyes that we are treated to the absurdities of our political system, especially how the media cover elections. We’re treated to a barrage of news clips focusing on what Kenyatta dubs “non-serious” issues, as reporters praise Fetterman’s casual style of dress — he wears hoodies! — his blunt style of speaking, his larger-than-life stature and personality, and — in one particular cringey moment — MSNBC anchor Kasie Hunt (now with CNN) asking Fetterman why he prefers Sheetz over Wawa as his favorite convenience store.
Harris, to his credit, keeps the film moving despite touching on myriad issues affecting a political campaign, from the quality and dearth of coverage to fundraising difficulties to the question of whether candidates must compromise their values in order to win elections.
The brief treatment that those issues receive raise so many other questions, and the film is so engaging, that it feels like Harris could have released a multi-hour alternative “political junkies cut” of the film exploring them in depth without any fear of losing viewers’ interest.
But Do Not Wait Your Turn is as much about Kenyatta the man as it is about Kenyatta the candidate.
In the moments off the campaign trail, out of the spotlight, and off-camera, we see a more vulnerable Kenyatta. We see his relationship with his fiancé, Dr. Matt Miller, flourish despite the myriad pressures of a political campaign. We see Miller’s touching “counter-proposal,” their wedding ceremony, their small, post-wedding reception in a gay bar, and Miller providing emotional stability for Kenyatta in the most trying of times.
As the days count down to the Democratic primary, viewers are shown statistics tracking Kenyatta’s relatively stagnant performance in polls and his miniscule growth in fundraising. Even as it dawns on viewers that this uphill climb is likely to be fruitless, Kenyatta is such a likable protagonist that one can’t help but to will him forward, hoping, perhaps in vain, for some change in fortune.
Kenyatta: Do Not Wait Your Turn plays Friday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at The Eaton.
Live screenings of Reel Affirmations films are Oct. 20 to 22 at the Eaton Hotel, 1201 K St. NW, in Washington, D.C.
Reel Affirmations 2023 includes the Virtual Film Festival providing online access to 43 films for those film lovers who cannot attend the festival in person, with a viewing window from Oct. 23 to 29. Of the 43 films, 26 are available only online.
For a full schedule of films, including retrospective showings, all pricing and pass options, and party information, visit www.thedccenter.org/reelaffirmations.
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