Black Presidents

A pop-cultural survey.

The first movie to imagine a black president of the United States at any length was Joseph Sargent’s satirical drama The Man in 1972. There, Douglass Dilman, president pro tempore of the Senate, happens into the Oval Office after the president and the speaker of the House die in a ceiling collapse. Unavailable on DVD, The Man is now a rarity, and yet it clearly forecasts the screen existences of subsequent black presidents.

James Earl Jones uses his commanding, paternal, universally presentable voice in the title role—a harbinger of baritones to come. Notably, the job of adapting Irving Wallace’s novel went to Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. Black presidents have most often existed in science-fiction scenarios, lending a futuristic tint to the proceedings. Next summer, Danny Glover will play one President Wilson in 2012, Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming special-effects spectacular.

What might any of this mean for Barack Obama? Beats me. But the next two weeks will see much talk and many pixels devoted to race and his candidacy, and in a nation drunk on entertainment, the legacy of his fictional forebears has to count for something. Herewith, a scan of the most prominent black presidents in American pop culture and a stab at understanding their significance.

24 (2001-Present)
Actors: Dennis Haysbert, D.B. Woodside
Presidents of the United States: David Palmer, Wayne Palmer

Tellingly, the first black actor cast as the president on Fox’s action series was most famous as the voice of an insurance company. We were in good hands with David Palmer and his race-neutral Allstate baritone, and his looks—mainstream manliness shaded brown—radiated dependability. The same can’t be said of the black president who succeeded him on the show. David’s brother Wayne—24 is, of course, energetically ludicrous, so don’t bother about the plot twists that preceded his swearing in—has a shaved head and a jazzman’s goatee altogether too slick for the West Wing. The actor playing Wayne, D.B. Woodside, looks like NBA point guard Gary Payton—and perhaps not for nothing. Is there anything to the fact that Fox’s online profiles for both characters mention their athletic prowess? Wayne Palmer went to Stanford on a baseball scholarship, and David was a basketball star at Georgetown. It’s as if they’ve vaulted into politics from a more familiar field for African-American heroes. Whatever—they’re tough on terrorism.

Not to be confused with the same year’s Armageddon, about astronauts nuking an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth, Deep Impact is about nuking a comet on a collision course with the Earth. It’s also about an MSNBC reporter so darling, as played by Téa Leoni, that the president gives her something of a scoop about the comet-nuking mission. Freeman looks and sounds conventionally presidential in the way that only a Visa pitchman can (cf. Dennis Haybert and his underwriter’s reliability). The actor shades his quiet righteousness—that Bruce Almighty-style rigor—with just a smidgen of Driving Miss Daisy deference. There’s no subtextual reason for Beck to be black—beyond patting America on its broadly inclusive back, maybe, or signaling an EEO solidarity with Leoni’s girl reporter.

The Fifth Element (1997)
Actor: Tommy “Tiny” Lister
POTUS: President Lindberg

Luc Besson’s wiggy fantasia tells the story of a planet representing pure evil on a collision course with the Earth in the 23rd century. Instead of nukes, our weapon against it is Milla Jovovich’s bandage-attired supernatural sylph, and one President Lindberg oversees her deployment. (Technically, Lindberg leads an entity called the “United Federation,” which is headquartered in New York City, but the geopolitics of blockbusters rule him in as our commander in chief.) Among its many bits of delirium, The Fifth Element presents a quasi-ironic festival of retrograde racial images, with Variety’s review noting that Chris Tucker’s mincing sidekick “sounds like Butterfly McQueen on speed.” As played by Lister—a 300-pounder best known for playing a larcenous thug in Friday—Lindberg is not a suitable role model. Too “angry.” Too “hostile.” Too much “bestial grunting.” That said, his menacing glares somehow suggest he’d stand firm against lobbyists.

Head of State (2003)
Actor: Chris Rock
POTUS: Mays Gilliam

In the only film on this list that does not qualify as fantasy or science fiction, a presidential candidate dies in a plane crash. (Shades, here, of The Man.) Party bosses, believing that defeat is certain, select a small-time D.C. alderman to head their ticket and take a fall so that an insider can cruise to victory four years later. Jokes predicated on the friction between urban culture and Beltway manners ensue in this slightly—very slightly—underrated comedy. Gilliam, played by Chris Rock, of course lacks Obama’s detachment and reserve. Rather, his style combines the hard-line populism of John Edwards with the idealism of Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith and the ghetto fabulousness of Warren Beatty’s Jay Billington Bulworth.

Idiocracy (2006)
Actor: Terry Crews
POTUS: Dwayne Camacho

Mike Judge’s sci-fi satire unfolds in the 26th century in a United States whose degraded citizens habitually deaden themselves with video games and fast food. (The movie is a cult classic, rather than a popular favorite, because its absurdism hits too close to home.) Luke Wilson—playing the “most average” soldier in the Army of 2005—awakes from Rip Van Winkle hibernation to find that he’s the smartest guy in the country and soon joins the Cabinet of President Camacho, who entered the political arena via the wrestling arena. While Camacho’s skin color is much really less of an issue than, say, the fact that he commands respect at the State of the Union by firing an automatic rifle at the ceiling, his processed hair and street idiom do lend an extra outlandish to the apocalyptic portrait. Do you want to have a beer with him? Yes, you could perhaps share a case, but as his full name is Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, you might prefer to bond over two liters of acid-green soda pop.