Dante's Afro: The Hair Apparent
It might seem insane to say that a head of hair, no matter how eye-catching or excellent, could win the mayoralty. But in this case, it’s true. The ‘fro knows.
Indeed, de Blasio was a fourth-place contender, a middle-aged white guy mired in a crowded field of liberals, pushing his not especially emboldening “tale of two cities” take on the effects of 12 years of Bloomberg rule.
Then his campaign launched the visually low-key TV spot featuring his 15-year-old biracial son, Dante, and D’s totally telegenic Afro. From that moment on, the de Blasio campaign, shall we say, gelled. The Afro started polling like gangbusters; wisely, de Blasio’s handlers chose to put all of his ad money into TV once the spot, and the kid, caught fire.
But I actually felt sorry for the son when I first watched the spot. The word “pandering” came to mind. Dante, a big and obviously sweet teenaged kid, seemed nervous and tentative in the opening seconds while reading from a teleprompter in a kitchen; his eyes were unfocused at times.
Then the spot moves to quicker cuts to pound away at the candidate’s anti-Bloomberg talking points, which all coalesce into this line: “He’s the only one who will end the stop-and-frisk era that targets people of color.”
That’s exactly the issue that the other candidates were too fearful to articulate so clearly.
Here’s the genius of the strategy: De Blasio is sensitive to the racial and ethnic boundaries that distanced Bloomberg from a lot of the diverse electorate, even if billionaire Bloomie did try to speak (and wound up mangling) Spanish.
Finally, we get to the most powerful part of the spot, the ending -- just as viewers who knew nothing about de Blasio are starting to wonder why this soft-spoken kid with the charismatic Afro is getting so much air time.
We see a slow-motion walk down the street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with Dante wearing a dark (“Brooklyn”) sweatshirt and a dark backpack, walking next to the candidate, a tall white guy in a suit. “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker, no matter where they live or what they look like,” Dante says, in a voiceover. But wait, there’s more! Get ready for the money quote: “And I’d say that even if he weren’t my Dad.” Ba-dum-bum!
What a home run, being able to talk about race in an organic, everyday way (by dint of being married to an African-American, Chirlane McCray, and having two kids with her) distinguishing de Blasio from the rest of the pack.
Weiner talked about fighting for “the middle class” but never clearly stated that he meant a diverse middle class. The original front-runner, Christine Quinn, was tarred by her connection to Bloomberg’s elitism. And Thompson, the only black candidate, refused to come out as clearly against stop-and-frisk because he wanted the endorsement of the police and firefighters’ unions.
The timing was also essential: The image of Dante in his sweatshirt resonated in the summer of the Trayvon Martin trial. “Trayvon could be me” Obama said of the teenager out buying candy. And the glaring injustice of Zimmerman’s (who executed his own stop-and-risk) getting off with no additional jail time, was fresh.
At the same time, the nation and the media celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, along with reviving the historical footage that offered its own civil rights lessons.
And the popular movie “The Butler” included an Angela Davis-type character with a ‘fro similar to Dante’s.
Most important, the hair was a natural part of the kid and his personality. It’s not as if he grew it for the commercial. He’s been rocking a ‘fro since third grade, he told DNAinfo, inspired by Huey from the cartoon series “The Boondocks.”
So here’s the full-circle stuff: Huey, Dante’s hero, takes his name from Huey Newton, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party in the late ‘60s. Dante’s impressive cloud of hair comes to us via a cute middle-class kid’s love of comic books and an animated series based on the roots of black power.
But there’s another, less political, more absurdly commercial reason the follicles as focal point resonated so tremendously with TV viewers. Political spots are usually ugly (with stock photos and articles ripped from the headlines), and boring. But de Blasio’s features a deep dive with an unusually interesting kid, and a surprisingly delightful tagline.
Come to think of it, the power of Dante’s end line itself springs
from some heavy TV-commercial royalty. Remember Sy Sperling’s Hair Club for Men? His ads were ubiquitous from the early 1980s to the 1990s. After blathering on and
on in his Brooklyn accent about doctors and studies, how did Sy end his ads? “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.”
“And I’d say that even if he weren’t my Dad,” says Dante, somewhat by way of Sy.
Way for de Blasio to go with the ‘fro. For him, diversity is not just business, it’s personal. Take it from his kid, and the cloud.