Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hollywood's Leading Man

From Sammy Davis Jr. to Dave Chappelle’s Black Bush, how pop culture tested the waters for a black president.
By Teresa Wiltz

Published on The Root (

Back, back, way back in the day, Hollywood was ahead of the curve, plugging its candidate for the first black president. From Sammy Davis Jr. to Chappelle’s Black Bush, how pop culture tested the waters for a black man running the nation.

“Am I gonna be a great man, Mammy?”
“You sho’ is, youse gwine be president.
The book says anybody here can be president.”
"Ain’t that somethin’!”
—Sammy Davis Jr. and Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President

Before anybody had even heard of Barack Obama, before anyone had even considered his presidency a possibility, it was out there, this notion of a brother as commander in chief. Decades before Dennis Haysbert tried to avert bioterrorist threats on 24. Eons before Morgan Freeman comforted a terrified nation about that massive meteor hurtling toward Earth in Deep Impact. Back, back, way back in the day, Hollywood was ahead of the curve, plugging its candidate for the first black president

Sammy Davis Jr. Specifically, a 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. tap dancing, clutching a chicken wing and singing “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You,” as part of his acceptance speech in Rufus Jones For President.

Well, it was 1933. But still, with that 21-minute musical short, Hollywood set a tone for a radical notion.

There are those who say that Hollywood prepared Americans for electing a black president, that seeing black presidents—not to mention The Cosby Show —on screen over the decades somehow readied the American psyche for last November’s Great Leap of Faith.

Right before the election, Dennis Haysbert declared, “If anything, my portrayal of David Palmer, I think, may have helped open the eyes of the American people. And I mean the American people from across the board—from the poorest to the richest, every color and creed, every religious base—to prove the possibility there could be an African-American president, a female president, any type of president that puts the people first."

24 creator Robert Cochran said: “It’s the job of artists and storytellers to anticipate the future and either spot trends or spot things that ought to be happening. It’s not surprising that these things happen in fiction before they do in real life.”

Hmmm. Clearly pop culture has a powerful hold on the national imagination. Just think of all the 8-year-old girls who bop around suburban McMansions, doing the Beyoncé booty shake. Or the 12-year-olds who watch Hancock over and over again, wishing that they could be Will Smith.
But if anything, before Haysbert’s David Palmer, Hollywood did more to reinforce the absurdity of a black president than the intriguing possibility.

In portrayals like Sammy Davis Jr.’s, the concept was portrayed as so far-fetched, so outrageous, that it could only be treated as the object of crude, slapstick humor. In later years, it was approached with freakish sci-fi implausibility, usually set up by a disaster scenario like that which confronted Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact or Tiny Lister in The Fifth Element.
When faced with the prospect of a black person running things, Hollywood suits, it seemed, literally didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Still, it was a trope that popped up repeatedly in pop culture, from Dizzy Gillespie’s whimsical 1963 faux campaign (“Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!”) to James Earl Jones in The Man in 1972, to Rudy Ray Moore’s raunchy Dolemite 4 President comedy album in the same year. And let’s not forget about that other Clinton—George, of Parliament Funkadelic fame—demanding that we “Paint the White House Black” in ’93.

Whether the device was comic, tragic or ironic, the juxtaposition of the ultimate seat of power against the relative powerlessness of the black man spoke volumes about how Americans viewed racial stratification and the possibility for change. (And forget about a black woman; only Rosalind Cash came anywhere close, playing the first black vice president in the 1982 satire, Wrong Is Right.)

In the wake of the civil rights movement, pop culture exploded with images of black potency, particularly black male potency. There was Richard Roundtree in Shaft and Ron O’Neal in Superfly and Jim Kelly karate-chopping it up in Enter The Dragon.

Then there was The Man, with James Earl Jones serving up the ultimate symbol of black masculinity, a Blaxploitation-era president. But even in The Man, the African-American protagonist couldn’t catch a break. “The First Black President of the United States,” read the posters plugging the movie. “First They Swore Him In. Then They Swore to Get Him.”
And then there was the dashiki-clad first lady, giving him drama, accusing him of being an Uncle Tom and demanding, “How the hell do you get out of the first family, anyway?”
“You just pick an exit, and walk,” Jones told her, and so she did.

It’s hard to find any traces of The Man these days, beyond a two-minute clip on YouTube . But the film, based on a novel by Irving Wallace and adapted for the screen by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, did set a precedent in the black president canon: James’ president was a stoic, heroic figure who is in power thanks to a catastrophic occurrence. In The Man, the president and the speaker of the House are killed in a freak accident; the vice president is too sick to fill in.

It was a long way from the bug-eyed antics of Rufus Jones, where the all-black Senate was told to check their knives at the door. But it was far from a testament to American possibility.

Hold your hands in the air
And wave ‘em like you just don’t care
If I’ve got your vote for president
Let me hear you say ‘Oh Yeah’
--Chris Rock as Mays Gilliam in Head of State

White Hollywood executives were not the only ones who had a hard time taking a black president seriously. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, everyone, it seemed, wanted to be president for a day. Everyone, that is, who made a living touring the chitlin’ circuits at a time when the comedy album ruled. You had Blowfly , whose solution to the conflict in the Middle East was “more orgies.” And there was Rudy Ray Moore as Dolemite, elucidating his platform: Legalize prostitution, legalize marijuana, legalize stealing and any other "MF…ing thing you want to do.”
“It was just a way to wring some extra laughs out of the same old street humor,” said TV writer David Mills, who blogged about old school black comics on his blog, Undercover Black Man . “The humor isn’t otherwise sophisticated or rich with political insight or social comment.”

With Head of State (2003), Chris Rock played with the fish-out-of-water theme, with his black president, an alderman/community organizer who finds himself thrust into the race almost by accident, chosen to run against a war hero after a feminist woman candidate decides that she’d rather run in four years when she has a better chance. Sound familiar? “When you look back at it, the similarities of the [Obama] campaign, it’s striking,” says Ali LeRoi, who co-wrote Head of State with Rock. (Rock also directed.) “At the time, we didn’t think it was going to happen any time soon. That in five years—five years!—a black guy not only would be running, but would win.”

Other comics, like Eddie Murphy in 1983 , used the assassination theme as a running gag, tapping into the black fear that a black president wouldn’t last past the first day, sure to be felled by some neo-Nazi zealot: Jesse Jackson, he quipped, wasn’t just running for president, he was running to keep in shape—the better to dodge those bullets.

Dave Chappelle picked up on the meme in his stand-up routines, cracking, “I’d be the first black president… I don’t think anyone will hurt me… Because my vice president will be Mexican. For a little insurance.”But at least one black comic used the black president shtick to make a political point. In ’77, Richard Pryor played with the concept on his short-lived skit series, The Richard Pryor Show .

He’s the first black president, at a press conference, somberly answering the reporter’s questions in political speak: “The neutron bomb is a whole-cost weapon. It’s not within the cellular realm of reality. It’s a neo-pacificist weapon.”

But once the black reporters start asking questions, the rage beneath the sober façade starts to peep through, and the president’s agenda becomes evident. Huey Newton will run the FBI, he declares: “He knows the ins and outs of [it].” When a white reporter says something provocative about his mama, well, let’s just say that even the first black president has his limits.
Stinging satire, of course, is uncomfortable—even when (especially when) it’s of the Pryor variety, or that of Chappelle’s Black Bush.

The noble, unthreatening calm of David Palmer, was, perhaps more palatable for the American public—and a better primer for the real thing. As Cochran, the creator, tells it, in creating the character of President David Palmer, he wasn’t conscious of aiming for anything loftier than telling a good story. Colin Powell had been talking about running for president, Cochran says, so the notion was floating around. But, he says, “we weren’t trying to make any particular social statement. It worked in terms of the tension, it worked in terms of getting a great actor, and it was a little different from what you normally see.”

Palmer’s assassination in season five was a way to explore racial tensions on a subliminal level, according to Cochran. Casting Palmer’s brother, played by D.B. Woodside, as the next black president was meant to tap into a Kennedyesque vibe, with Woodside taking on the role of a black Bobby Kennedy, carrying on the legacy of his slain brother, and facing an assassination attempt of his own. (He got to live, though.)But even with two black presidents on 24, their power was diminished. Ultimately, it always took white Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) to save the day.

So now that we have a black president, how will we react to media portrayals? Will there be pressure among writers and producers to create black leaders who feel real and black-led administrations that feel plausible? Will we, as viewers, be able to enjoy over-the-top portrayals of black presidents, such as Terry Crews’ wig-wearing wrestler in Idiocracy , as merely fun entertainment, devoid of racial and social commentary?

Might we perhaps see a black actor playing the lead in a complex drama like The West Wing, or a romantic comedy along An American President, where the president gets to be a fully fleshed out human, and not a cardboard icon? And isn’t it about time that we saw a portrayal of an African-American president who just happens to be a woman, too? For its season finale in December, Heroes showed a glimpse of a seemingly duplicitous president, plotting with Sen. Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) to quarantine all those with hero powers. Right before the episode faded to black, we got a glimpse of the president’s face. A face that looked a lot like Barack Obama’s.

It’ll be interesting to see, when Heroes returns in February, how prominent a role their new black president plays in the series. Will he be as complicated and conflicted as the rest of the multiracial cast? It’s going to take a minute for pop culture to process the momentous change that November unleashed. As art influences life, so does life influence art. More than likely, TV shows will catch on quicker than the movies do. They’ve got a much shorter lead time, which enables them to respond quickly to current events. And these days, television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty routinely feature multiracial casts in a way that we’ve yet to see in the movies.

One change is certain. The Can-You-Believe-A-Brother-is-in-the-White-House comedy will have to be retired because, well, the joke doesn’t work any more . (So too, will the jokes about the black president dodging bullets.) And presidential comedy may suffer for a time. Writers and viewers will likely be a little sensitive to satire about our first. But as President Obama grows into his new role, showing us that he’s a flesh-and-blood president capable of making mistakes—and not a saintly, boring icon protecting us from that dastardly meteor—we’ll relax, too. Comics will take him on, and we’ll laugh.

Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root.

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