The Black Presidents Before Obama

Barack Obama was not the first African-American elected to the presidency. By my count, he was the seventh. It was just that he was the first nonfiction one. But Americans had already lived through the administrations of President David Palmer in Fox’s TV series 24, President Tom Beck in the film Deep Impact, and President Mays Gilliam from Head of State.

While pundits marveled over the fact that Americans could elect a man one generation removed from Africa to their highest office, popular culture was way ahead of the curve. It would be a stretch to conclude that these shows convinced Americans it was okay to vote for Obama. But it is possible that they reflected a maturation in the debate in America over race: To the majority of people a black president was now plausible, even welcome. Even those voices that thought America would not vote for a guy like Obama were at least discussing it.

This isn’t to say that pop culture rendered the notion of a black president uncontroversial. Indeed, the black presidents of pop culture reflect an important divide between how blacks and whites themselves view the proposition. While both black and white directors have entertained the idea, it has been, ironically, the white filmmakers who were more open to the idea that than black ones.

The films and shows created by Hollywood’s white producers and directors such as 24, or the disaster epic Deep Impact present the reality of a black president as a natural and plausible one. In fact, in the name of either political correctness or a sincere post-racial vision, they downplay the racial aspect of the black president altogether.

Black producers and directors, on the other hand, have been far more suspicious of the notion of a black president apparently because they just didn’t believe it could ever happen. Their films frame the possibility as the absurd punchline of a politically-loaded joke. It’s not a coincidence that the portrayals on this side are mostly done by edgy comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.

This wasn’t because they were opposed to the idea of a black president. The problem was that accepting the idea meant jettisoning some notions about race in America and that just wasn’t easy for many. White filmmakers on the other hand were quite eager to do it.

University of Maryland historian Ron Walters, who worked on Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs, explained to Time magazine in January 2007 that, “A lot of black people aren’t ready to get beyond race, because race puts them in the situation they’re in. But many whites want to get beyond the past, they want to support a black person who doesn’t raise the past and in fact gives them absolution from the past.”

Walters was referring to Obama’s post-racial appeal and how it—at least initially in the 2008 presidential race—brought in many white voters while gaining only tepid support from blacks. This same phenomenon is reflected in the films and TV of the last decade too.

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Black presidents are a relatively recent pop culture phenomenon, with virtually all of them occurring in the last decade. The lone exception to this gives a sense of how much attitudes have changed.

As best I can tell, the earliest representation of a black president is a 1972 film called The Man, starring James Earl Jones. It is perhaps not surprising that the screenplay was written by Rod Serling, creator of the Twilight Zone. This was just a few short years after the civil rights era, when policies like affirmative action and busing were keeping racial tensions at a steady simmer. The story of a black president must have seemed at the time as far out as aliens coming to Earth.

I’m limited in what I can say about this film because I haven’t actually seen it. It has apparently never been released on home video in any format. But, according to the Internet Movie Database, the film has Jones playing a senator who is elevated to the White House when the current president and House speaker are killed in a freak accident and the vice president is incapacitated. Interestingly, the film never identifies which party Jones’ President Dilman belongs to.

The plot concerns Dilman’s efforts to hold onto the office by winning his party’s nomination and getting elected in his own right, which he eventually does. Racism is a major theme, with President Dilman obliged to quell doubts about his being fit to be president among the nation and late president’s cabinet. The film’s tag line was “First they swore him in, then they swore to get him.”

New York Times review critic Vincent Canby gave the film a dismissive review, describing it as “silly and innocent.” Other critics similarly described the film as too far-fetched and too contrived to be believed.

Those critics were reflecting the conventional wisdom of the time: Whatever progress was made in the civil rights movement, the kind of equality that would allow a black man to be elected president was still far, far off.

In this case, the critics were in tune with the zeitgeist. Audiences weren’t buying it either. Despite its sensational subject matter, The Man failed to make much impact at the box office and swiftly faded in the obscurity. The idea of a black president would not resurface in TV and movies until the 1990s.

In the interim, an actual black presidential candidate emerged, but Jesse Jackson’s two failed presidential bids in the 1980s seemed to prove the filmmakers’ skepticism. Jackson could not win his own party’s nod either time, and brief talk that Jackson might get the vice presidential slot in 1988 ended when elderly white Texan Lloyd Bentsen got the nod instead.

Now there are numerous perfectly good nonracial reasons to reject Jackson, but his failure as a candidate was inextricably connected to his status as a racial icon. As cultural critic Shelby Steele put it in the Wall Street Journal, Jackson was a “challenger” who “intimidated whites and demanded, in the name of historical justice, that [he] be brought forward.”

Such brash tactics can win a place at the table, but they can also stoke a backlash. That was clearly what Democratic leaders feared when Jackson jumped into the primaries in the 1980s—that he would turn off white voters en masse. (Although the candidates the party did pick—Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis—managed to do a pretty good job of that on their own.)

The other way forward for blacks in the political and cultural arena according to Steele is to be “bargainers.” As Steele explains: “Bargainers make the subliminal promise not to shame [whites] with America’s history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer’s race against them.”

The bargainer thus does not advance despite his race; rather, he makes race an asset. “Whites love this bargain—and love the bargainer—because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist,” Steele notes.

The first black presidential candidate with a plausible chance of winning was General Colin Powell, who flirted with a White House bid in 1996. The lingering glow from the victory in the first Gulf War was obviously a major factor in Powell’s popularity but so was his status as a leading African-American not associated with the civil rights movement. He was a product of one of the most integrated institutions in America, the military, and spoke its language of duty and country first. His career as a soldier thus suggested that he had spurned the “challenger” archetype for the “bargainer” one.

Although Powell didn’t end up running, the speculation that he would revived pop-cultural interest in the idea of a black president. Twenty-five years after The Man, the idea caught on and found an audience. The ironic thing was that the ones who picked up on it were mostly white producers and directors.

Deep Impact rolled into theaters in 1998. In it, Morgan Freeman played the wise and dignified President Tom Beck. A giant comet is on a collision course with Earth, and Beck and his administration struggle to prevent what NASA dubs an “extinction level event.”  Throughout the movie, Freeman delivers somber speeches about the epochal crisis humanity faces, and urges hope in the face of despair. (Sound
familiar?)

At no point in Deep Impact is Freeman’s race mentioned, even in passing. No one remarks how unusual it is to have an African-American as commander-in-chief, and, unlike in The Man, the story of his ascent to office is deemed unimportant. Was he a vice president who took over from a deceased president? Did he get elected on his own accord? We’re not even given a hint. The other characters behave as though having a black president were no big deal.

The film’s reviewers seemed to agree. While many gave kudos to Freeman for his portrayal, few commented on the casting itself. Critics for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major dailies reviewed the film as if Freeman was as perfectly natural a choice for a movie president as, say, Gene Hackman or Harrison Ford.

Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan was typical: “Freeman [is] so effectively presidential that you can’t imagine voting for anyone else.”

Alternative papers were less reluctant to mention Freeman’s race than the mainstream press, but even then they didn’t dwell on the issue. The Philadelphia City Paper’s review noted: “You know it’s science fiction when the president is black; Freeman is here to look regal and sad and not a little out of place.”

Deep Impact was directed by Mimi Leder, a white filmmaker who had previously produced ER. Steven Spielberg was an executive producer. As with ER and every Spielberg flick, the heroes face down existential threats armed with sincerity and hope, never cynicism. The film asks viewers to put race aside in order to tackle the bigger problems that threaten us all, like death by errant comets.

FOX’s hit series 24 wasn’t quite as color-blind as Deep Impact. Created by Joel Surnow, a white writer and producer who is also a noted Republican donor, the series suggests that white comfort with the idea of a black president crosses party lines. In the first season, the producers cast African-American actor Dennis Haysbert as a Democratic senator running for president. The prospect of a black president was played up quite a bit in the early episodes, but the subject gradually fades into the background over the course of the first season. By the time Palmer becomes president, his race is no longer an issue. In fact, not a single reference to it is made in the entire second season. And they had plenty of opportunities; President Palmer got nearly as much screen time as Jack Bauer.

Like Freeman’s performance, Haysbert’s portrayal is of an idealized president: wise, confident, and a born leader in times of crisis. President Palmer is a wellspring of manly stoicism and soothing calm. It was hardly a surprise that Haysbert went on to do commercials for Allstate Insurance, with the catchphrase, “You’re in good hands.”

Presidents Beck and Palmer are prime examples of Steele’s bargainers: black presidents unconflicted about race and appealing to our collective unity as Americans instead.

Palmer’s assassination at the outset of season five sets in motion events that lead to his brother becoming president, giving 24 the unusual distinction of having not one, but two black presidents.

The notion of a black president has become so non-controversial for white directors that they don’t draw attention to it even in political satire. In Mike Judge’s 2006 sci-fi comedy Idiocracy, by the year 2505 the world has been decimated by trailer-park types who have been rampantly outbreeding smarter people for centuries. (The scientists were too busy “conquering hair loss and prolonging erections” to notice.) As a result, the entire population has become a bunch of morons.

In Judge’s future, the English language has deteriorated into a “hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner-city slang, and various grunts.” Anybody accused of acting smart is called a “fag.” And yet despite the fact that language is reduced to its most vulgar level, racial epithets are conspicuously absent from the lexicon, implying that racism too has been expunged.

Indeed, the morons elect porn superstar and “five-time ultimate smackdown wrestling champion” Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, played by black actor Terry Crews, as their president. At the end of the film, star Luke Wilson becomes the new president. He marries Rita, played by Saturday Night Live regular Maya Rudolph, giving the future world a black First Lady.

All three of these recent films not only imagined a world where an African-American could be president, they resisted acknowledging that such an event was unlikely or unusual. The success of Deep Impact and 24 (Idiocracy was released straight to home video but has quickly become a cult favorite) suggested that most people in the country wanted to put the burden of race behind them, as Walters has argued.

Melanie Green, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina told the Boston Globe recently that these portrayals did impact the way people, especially the under-30 crowd, viewed African-Americans as leaders.

“Our research suggests that people really do in a lot of ways treat fictional characters like real people,” she told the Globe. “To the extent that younger people have grown up seeing images of black presidents, it is totally understandable that they would think about it in a different way than an older generation would.”

Steele argued that it was Obama’s “genius” to understand this: “Though he likes to claim that his race was a liability to overcome, he also surely knew that his race could give him just the edge he needed.”

***

Presentations of black presidents created by black producers and directors have taken a more cynical direction: A black president? Don’t make us laugh.

In historical terms, the disbelief among blacks that they could ever win white votes should not be that surprising. Thus far, there have been relatively few black officials elected to high office aside from congressional representatives from heavily black districts and mayors of cities with large black populations. At the time he ran for president, Obama was the only black senator. There were only two black governors, one of whom, New York’s David Paterson, took office only when the previous (white) governor Eliot Spitzer resigned. To many blacks, these disparities were proof that they could only go so far in politics.

This suspicion was evident even in Obama’s campaign. His earliest support came mainly from college students and upper-class white liberals. Hillary Clinton split the black vote in early polls and initially won the support of much of the Congressional Black Caucus. However much the CBC may have liked Obama, most just didn’t think he could win.

Chris Rock articulated this view on his 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain, which was released during the public speculation that Colin Powell might run. “Colin Powell cannot win. He has a better chance of winning the bronze in female gymnastics than being president of the United States. White people ain’t voting for Colin Powell. They say they are. They are not,” Rock said to roars of laughter from the audience.

Rock went on to write, direct, and star in the 2003 comedy Head of State, which riffs on this idea. In the film, Rock plays Mays Gilliam, who represents Washington, D.C.’s fictional “9th Ward” on the city council. His ward is so tough that “You can get shot while you’re getting shot.” Gilliam becomes a media hero when he rescues an elderly woman from a house that’s about to be demolished. When his party’s intended presidential candidate and running mate die in a plane crash, Gilliam is offered the nomination instead.

The candidate hits the campaign trail with just nine weeks to go before the election. He struggles at first but later connects with the people after breaking free of his handlers’ control. Gilliam starts with a burst of angry populist rhetoric. His approach also includes dispensing with suits in favor of jogging outfits, running hip-hop styled commercials, replacing the photo of Ronald Reagan at his campaign headquarters with one of Detroit Piston Allan Iverson, and getting his brother–—played by the late Bernie Mac—to be his running mate. Soon his campaign begins to catch on and he becomes a legitimate contender. Especially after he gets the endorsement of Ghostface Killa.

In its few serious moments, the film reveals Rock’s underlying cynicism towards the idea of a black president. Gilliam’s bid comes only because a savvy senator played by James Rebhorn suggests the party makes the best of the deaths of its intended candidates by getting a minority candidate. They’ll still lose but they’ll boost the party’s standing with minorities and possibly win the next election (when Rebhorn’s senator intends to run).

“If they had any idea they thought they could win this thing, do you think they would have chosen an ignorant-ass n****r like you?” Gilliam is told by a party official played by African-American actress Lynn Whitfield. When the other handler, played by a white actor, urges Gilliam not to give up, Gilliam says he wishes that he could.

“I wish I could quit. I wish it was that easy. You’re lucky. You’re so lucky. You don’t know how good you got it. You just represent yourself. Me? I represent my whole race. If I quit there won’t be another black candidate for years,” says Gilliam.

How cynical is Rock towards the idea of the nation accepting an African-American president? When the nomination is first offered to Gilliam, he has a mental image of himself as president giving a speech—and immediately getting shot. The image is repeated later in the movie. There is also a scene where Gilliam’s official decoy takes a bullet.

A black president also figured in the 2002 spy spoof Undercover Brother, directed by Malcom Lee, Spike Lee’s cousin. The film stars Eddie Griffin as the title character, an agent of a super-secret organization called the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. and dedicated to fighting “The Man.” Billy Dee Williams plays a Colin Powell-like general who is touted as the first black presidential candidate. The Man, of course, will not stand for this and brainwashes Williams into instead opening his own chain of fried chicken restaurants. Undercover Brother must unravel the plot.

Even sillier than Head of State, the film is also more cynical when you get past the jokes. It’s built around the idea that black culture and white culture are separate and antagonistic. The Man is keeping the black people down, as evidenced by a conversation between Undercover Brother and “Conspiracy Brother” played by David Chappelle:

Undercover Brother: Are you telling me there really is a Man?
?Conspiracy Brother: What do you think? Things don’t just happen by accident! Sometimes people—mostly white people—make things happen!
?Undercover Brother: So the conspiracies we’ve believed for all these years are true? The NBA really did institute the three point shot to give white boys a chance?
?Conspiracy Brother: Of course!

It’s no coincidence that the film’s black president scenario reproduces Chris Rock’s reaction to Colin Powell. The advantage of satire is that you can deal with concepts—like assassination and racial conspiracies—that would be too dark to deal with otherwise in entertainment. The jokes about brainwashing and assassination may be witty, but they play on real anxieties and reveal notions that can’t otherwise be discussed frankly in commercial entertainment.

Chappelle also wrote two skits featuring a black president for his hit Comedy Central show. One reimagined George W. Bush as a black man, another parodied Deep Impact. Chappelle evidently found the latter’s casting of Morgan Freeman as president so far-fetched that he built a sketch around it with himself as Freeman’s character giving a press conference. He announces a series of events even more improbable than his presidency, like the discovery of a cure for AIDS and contact with space aliens. Each revelation is followed by Chappelle saying, “Have I blown your mind yet?”

For many African-American cultural critics, the prospect of an Obama presidency was discomfiting. L.A. Times columnist David Ehrenstein infamously described Obama as the “magical negro” of white America’s fantasies. The column linked Obama’s political success to Morgan Freeman and other black actors who played wise father-figures.

“Like a comic book superhero, Obama is here to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magical Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn’t project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him,” Ehrenstein wrote.

Ehrenstein essentially agrees with Steele’s challenger/bargainer dichotomy—he even asks, “What does the white man get out of the bargain?” Unlike Steele, he doesn’t approve of the idea of the bargainer assuaging white “guilt.” (The scare quotes are his).

Yet as the election grew closer, most skeptics changed their views. Asked by Larry King last September about whether he was worried that racism might hurt Obama’s chances, Rock replied: “I don’t fear it … What I really hope is that the Democrats that were for Hillary vote for Obama and don’t make this a racial thing.”

He allowed that Obama’s election would force him to rethink his political material: “Obama, oh, this is a whole new set of jokes. I got to find a whole new move to the basket here. So I kind of hope he wins.”

Rock sounded chastened in the interview, as well he should have been. His comedy, considered insightful and cutting-edge just a few years earlier, has proven to be woefully out of date. The more optimistic vision of people like Deep Impact and 24 has won out. No doubt, future generations will look back on 24 and The Chappelle Show as markers of an era. It was time for a black president because people were already thinking about it.

-Sean Higgins is a Washington, DC-based reporter.

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