Black like them
Early evening settles on a quiet suburb of spacious homes and lush lawns. Suddenly, an ominous voice pierces the tranquillity: America is about to elect the first black president of the United States.
Within seconds, the streets flood with hundreds of panicked white people running from their homes. One man stops and lifts his face to the heavens, his arms outstretched, face etched with fear.
The satiric scene is a climactic highlight of 2003’s “Head of State,” a comedy starring Chris Rock as a Washington, D.C., alderman who uses a hip-hop-flavored campaign and a grass-roots attack against government to rise to the highest office in the land. In the film’s DVD commentary, Rock said, “I don’t know if I’ll see a black president in my lifetime.”
The film, and that line, show how entertainment can anticipate, comment on -- and completely misunderstand -- real events. While the idea of a black man in the White House was once laughable, provocative, even terrifying on the big and small screens, its possible realization this year in the candidacy of Barack Obama may soon become an example of life imitating art.
The creative forces behind some of these projects don’t agree on their import, but there’s a somewhat surprising consensus that admirable black fictional figures may have subtly conditioned the electorate to be receptive to a candidate like Obama, the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer.
“One wonders to what degree a scenario played out in a safe, contained, fictionalized context might have prepared people for the real thing,” said Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. “Popular culture is more than mere entertainment. It gives us a dress rehearsal for the real thing. We can imagine who we are and who we would like to be.”
Make-believe black presidents occupy an odd little corner of pop culture, a territory that a few notable films and television programs have staked out. The “first black president” to break that color barrier may have been 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. One of the entertainer’s first notable roles was in “Rufus Jones for President,” a 1933 musical-comedy short in which a black child is elected to the top office.
With few exceptions, fictional U.S. presidents -- as in 42 real-life instances -- are white males. Rarely, the chief executive may be portrayed as malevolent, as with Gene Hackman in “Absolute Power,” but most often the leader of the free world has been seen as clearly heroic with an everyman quality as with Harrison Ford in “Air Force One,” or Bill Pullman in “Independence Day,” and even romantic as with Michael Douglas in “The American President.”
But when an African American was placed in the Oval Office, it was something American audiences couldn’t help noting -- whether the tone was whimsical in “Head of State” or “Idiocracy,” fantastical in “The Fifth Element,” or gravely dramatic in “Deep Impact.” In fact, Morgan Freeman’s strong performance in “Impact” prompted this classic crack from Jon Stewart while hosting the Academy Awards this year: “Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.”
Obama’s vibrant candidacy, as might be expected, has surprised and encouraged many of the writers and producers who created fictional black presidents. “It’s interesting and fascinating that this happened kind of quickly,” said Ali LeRoi, who co-wrote “Head of State” with Rock. “At the time we did the movie, Barack was just beginning his rise in politics. Now he’s like one of those great gadgets like the iPhone. Everyone is fascinated.”
Of the handful of portrayals of black presidents, few have made their mark on pop culture as much as Dennis Haysbert on Fox’s action-thriller “24.” In the drama’s first season, in 2001, Haysbert was introduced as David Palmer, a senator running for president. When the second season started, Palmer was in the White House. Some people -- including Haysbert -- believe the actor’s commanding and dignified portrayal of Palmer may have subliminally eased Obama’s path to his nomination.
“Frankly and honestly, what my role did and the way I was able to play it and the way the writers wrote it opened the eyes of the American public that a black president was viable and could happen,” said Haysbert, who currently stars in CBS’ “The Unit.” “It always made perfect sense to me. I never played it like it was fake.”
Making color ‘incidental’
Haysbert, WHO supports Obama, added that making Palmer’s race a nonissue was integral to making the character more realistic and ultimately more presidential. The role was embraced not only by American viewers but by European fans who would compliment and commend him in his travels overseas to promote the series. “I never looked on him as being a ‘black’ president,” he added. “He was simply the best man in the position. That’s what we’re getting with Barack. The color of his skin is incidental to how he is inside.”
A connection between Obama’s rise and positive black presidential role models in film and television could be supported by the Illinois senator’s large base of young supporters -- mass consumers of pop culture. “It’s interesting that movies have made acceptable what was once radical,” said John W. Matviko, author of “The American President in Popular Culture.” “After it’s seen a couple of times, it’s no longer unusual. That kind of subtle persuasion has impact.”
Added Rodney Barnes, co-executive producer of “The Boondocks,” the presence of Haysbert and Freeman in presidential roles “made white people a lot more comfortable. Made them think, ‘Yeah, this is possible.’ ”
(It couldn’t be determined what Obama and John McCain may have made of these portrayals, though they both have interesting tastes in entertainment. According to their Facebook pages, McCain lists his favorite movies as “Viva Zapata,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Obama’s movie favorites include “Casablanca,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Godfather” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”) Unfortunately, Obama shares one disturbing parallel with his fictional counterparts from both “Head of State” and “24" -- the possibility of assassination. In “Head of State,” the first thing that Rock’s character visualizes when approached about the job is being shot. That possibility is handled humorously and pops up a few more times in the film.
The first season of “24" revolved around an assassination attempt on Palmer during his campaign for high office. When the second season starts, Palmer has been elected but is critically injured by an “acid handshake” from a terrorist at the season closer. He survives the attempt, but in the show’s fifth season, Palmer is shot and killed. Haysbert still bristles about his character’s fate: “I was very upset. We live in this country where we have killed off all these beloved leaders -- JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King. Why would you ever want to take a show that has produced a wonderful character that everyone loves and do that?”
Howard Gordon, an executive producer of the show, said killing Palmer was difficult. “Our show is not about cheap thrills. We have to go where the story takes us.”
In what was apparently a tribute to the Palmer character, his brother (D.B. Woodside) became president in the latest season of the series. He has already been the victim of an assassination attempt but thus far has survived.
It’s the 1972 film “The Man” that is largely credited with being the first serious treatment of a black man becoming president. Based on an Irving Wallace novel, the movie starred James Earl Jones as the Senate president pro tem who suddenly ascends to the Oval Office after the untimely deaths of the president and speaker of the House and the illness of the vice president.
In the poster for the film, Jones is pictured taking the oath of office at a ceremony populated by white politicians. The tag line for the movie reads “The first black president of the United States. First they swore him in. Then they swore to get him.”
With “Head of State,” Rock and LeRoi, also an executive producer on the CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” were interested in a showcase for the comedian’s sharp topical humor. In the film, a series of circumstances leads a political party to draft the unlikely Rock as a presidential candidate with the hope that he will lose.
Said LeRoi: “It’s loosely based on ‘The Candidate’ and ‘Rocky.’ We wanted to have a populist politician, a candidate who’s a big thinker and wants to do good but is in a landscape where it’s impossible to do.”
The film was only moderately successful. Some critics accused it of relying too heavily on caricature (Rock wears athletic gear and transforms a staid all-white fundraiser into a hip-hop party when he turns into a DJ and plays Nelly’s “Hot In Herre”).
With “24,” a black president was an important component of the drama’s initial success, said producer Gordon. “Having an African American candidate for president shows this amazing promise of what America was,” said Gordon. “It ennobled Agent Jack Bauer’s quest in that first year. To preserve this heroic character and what his candidacy stood for was supremely the most patriotic act.”
Gordon added that eliminating racial overtones from Palmer’s character heightened the dramatic impact. “It was a cooler thing to do than not to do. Race was subverted in many of the ways that Obama subverts race. It does make it more interesting from a narrative point of view.”
And with Obama’s rise, now might be the time for a “Head of State 2.” LeRoi already has the perfect ending.
“We could have it where the black president really worked out in turning things around and then have a white guy run against him,” he said. “Then we can have a scene where we have all the black people running out their homes, screaming, ‘Oh, no, not another white guy!’ ”