Film, TV initiated black presidency

June 23, 2008|By Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton,Los Angeles Times

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 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 men. 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.

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."

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."

Greg Braxton writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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