Obama's secret weapon?
Five years before he became the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones became the first black president of the United States. In the 1972 film version of Irving Wallace's novel The Man, Douglass Dilman (Jones) is a U.S. senator serving as the upper chamber's president pro tempore when the President and Speaker of the House are killed in a freak accident. Dilman is next in line of succession when an ailing Vice President (Lew Ayres) refuses to take the oath of office. Dilman is sworn in and takes charge. Not everyone is happy about it. As the movie's promotional material advertised: “First They Swore Him In. Then They Swore to Get Him.” The scowling Senator Watson (Burgess Meredith) drawls to a colleague, “Tonight the White House ain't near white enough for me.” Despite the forces of racism and political opportunism (and sexual intrigue) arrayed against him, President Dilman weathers the siege and the movie ends on a triumphant note as his party's political convention nominates him for a new term in his own right.
The Man is all but forgotten today, but it pioneered the notion that the nation might one day be grown up enough to accept an African-American as chief executive. In some ways, Hollywood has been preparing the ground for the ascendancy of Barack Obama. The possibility of his presidency is not unthinkable. It could be next year's mundane reality. His fictional predecessors have been increasingly visible and decreasingly controversial. While The Man was all about the shock waves attendant on the president's unprecedented race, later fictional works treated it as incidental.
In Deep Impact (1998), President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) organized the nation's response to the threat of a major comet strike. The planet is faced with a possible “extinction-level event.” If humanity survives at all, it could be in the form of the hobbit-like future offspring of the Elijah Wood character and his teenage girlfriend. (Did I mention it's a horror film?) No one bothered to include any lines in the script where one actor turned to another and said, “Um, did you notice that the president is, um, black?” If there was any special message in Freeman's portrayal of the president, it was implicit: Here's a leader trying to save us from extinction. If his plans don't work, we're all going to die. Does anything else matter?
Beginning in 2001, Dennis Haysbert portrayed President David Palmer in 79 episodes of 24 during the first five seasons of Kiefer Sutherland's hit television drama. Week after week, month after month, American viewers saw a U.S. president who was black. It was not played for shock value (although many other things in the show were). The trials and tribulations of President Dilman were decades in the past and President Palmer paid more attention to the problems of terrorism than those of residual racism.
By the time 2003 rolls around, Chris Rock is playing the notion of the first black president of the United States for laughs in Head of State. (“The only thing white is the house.”) His portrayal of D.C. alderman Mays Gilliam as an accidental candidate for president did not set a new standard for profiles in leadership (nor, unfortunately, for comedy either), but in the span from President Dilman to President Gilliam we have run the gamut from melodrama to farce. We have now seen every kind of “first black president” that the entertainment industry has to offer. What more is there to do?
Elect a real one.