Thursday, June 5, 2008

We Respectable Negroes do Indeed Predict the Future--Obama made Possible by Hollywood?



It seems that we are indeed Negro Nostradamuses. A few months ago, Zora observed that Bro'Bama's candidacy was enabled by Hollywood's fictionalized portrayals of black men as the president of the United States. Now it seems that CNN is channeling our respectable negro-powered, future-predictive powers.

From CNN (Zora's original post follows)

Black presidents nothing new to Hollywood


By Lola Ogunnaike
CNN's American Morning

(CNN) -- Voters will determine if America is ready for a black president come November, but Hollywood, often ahead of the national curve, made up its mind about the issue ages ago.

Haysbert

Dennis Haysbert played the accomplished President David Palmer in "24."

On television and in film, black actors as acclaimed as James Earl Jones and as obscure as Tommy Lister have played commanders-in-chief.

Sammy Davis Jr. was only 9 when he assumed the top office in the 1933 satire "Rufus Jones for President." The film was as short as its adorable star.

But those 21 minutes were all too long on racial stereotypes. Chicken, watermelon, dice playing -- funny back then to many. Now, not so much.

Fast forward a few decades and the notion of a black man in the Oval Office provides ample joke fodder for comics such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock.

On one episode of "The Richard Pryor Show," the comedian's short-lived '70s variety hour, he played a president hosting a press conference. During the sketch, he tells a corps of reporters that he'd seriously consider Black Panther Huey Newton for the job of FBI director -- and nearly decks one journalist who inadvertently insults his momma. And when he's asked about his fetish for white women, he jokes, "They don't call it the White House for nothing."

In the 2003 film "Head of State," Chris Rock's president, Mays Gilliam, is an even more exaggerated caricature. His populist talk is glazed with hip-hop slang. Gilliam, a community organizer, is also partial to baggy jeans and Kangol caps and looks less like the leader of the free world than the latest signing of Def Jam Records. His running mate, played by Bernie Mac, thinks NATO is a person and not an acronym.

Gilliam is catapulted onto the public stage after the sitting president dies in a plane crash. It is not the first time a black man on screen has risen to power amidst calamity. Video Watch how Hollywood has been featuring minority presidents for decades »

In "The Man," James Earl Jones receives the big gig after the entire cabinet perishes in a series of freak accidents. In "Deep Impact," Morgan Freeman has to calm the nation as he contends with wayward comets threatening to destroy the planet. And in "The Fifth Element," set in 2263, Tommy Lister's President Lindberg has to battle asteroids and an enemy appropriately named The Great Evil.

It's not until the hit series "24" that things start looking up for the black president. Dennis Haysbert's character, David Palmer -- in the first season a senator running for the presidency -- is handsome, composed and ready to lead on Day One. His race is a non-issue as he grapples with modern-day threats such as terrorism, bomb scares and a social-climbing wife.

Yes, he's eventually assassinated, but only after he leaves office. And Palmer's equally self-possessed younger brother, Wayne, takes the reins shortly thereafter.

Will these depictions make any difference to Barack Obama's candidacy? Who knows? But what was once the stuff of joke and fantasy could be months away from being the real thing.

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Zora on Film: Has Hollywood Helped Pave the Way for Obama?

After voters have seen several black presidents on screen, are they more likely to elect one in real life? NPR's Michele Norris recently raised this question to Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts aka The Notorious PhD. "I'm a bit hesitant to say that because James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman or Dennis Haysbert played a president on a TV show or in a movie, it means Barack Obama can be president," Boyd responded. "I think that's a bit of a stretch."

Boyd goes on, though, to say that such representations — especially those like 24's, beamed weekly into American living rooms — "may have unconsciously made some things in society seem less troubling" than if there'd been no pop-culture pictures of a black president.

I'm betting that a lot of folks will take issue with Dr. Boyd's response. Leaders within the African-American community have been pushing for decades to have more positive representations of Negroes in the media. The result is that we regularly see African-Americans playing the roles of well-to-do professionals who are in positions of power. (For some reason, television casting directors love seeing African-American women in the role of judges -- the Law & Order spin-offs must be the most consistent employer of middle-aged, black female extras in the industry.) The irony is that the majority of the most blatant stereotypical imagery we see in popular culture today is produced by ourselves and for ourselves --> T_ler P_rry.

With Hollywood favorites like Denzel Washington, Bill Cosby and Will Smith, we've been looking pretty damn good on television and film over the last two decades (local news broadcasts not included). Some might say, too good. The problem is that the progress we've made on the cinematic screen does not reflect the progress we've made on the street. Liberals in Hollywood are producing symbols that are not grounded in reality. These symbols may actually be negatively affecting African-American progress.

The power of the media in shaping American perceptions of reality has been a regular theme on this blog. Because we are still a very segregated nation, most white Americans get a lot of their information about black Americans from the television. In places with marginal black populations like New Hampshire, Vermont, Montana, Utah and New Mexico, media images are even less likely to be balanced by real life interactions with African-Americans. If all they're seeing is images of well-off, powerful Negroes, then tales of black poverty and racial discrimination must fall on deaf ears.

I live in a small, New England town where I can count the number of African-Americans on my fingers and toes. All of us are professionals who are associated with the local college. We are surrounded by a lot of deep and profound poverty. It is nearly impossible to talk with Whites who have grown-up in this area about racial inequality and discrimination. From what they can observe, African-Americans have actually moved ahead of Whites. Most of them barely have a high-school education, so you can forget about discussing symbolic imagery and media manipulation with them.

All of the positive images of African-Americans are surely feeding what social theorists would term realistic group conflict. This is especially likely in this time of economic difficulty with the competition for jobs and benefits growing more fierce each day. We should not have been surprised at all that Obama lost in New Hampshire. Bill Clinton wasn't surprised. He knew immediately why Obama lost and sought to nourish the seeds of conflict with his comments on the "race card." The Clinton camp knew that they couldn't win the South Carolina battle, but they are looking long-term at the war. For all of Obama's talk about "hope," he has to also acknowledge (at least among his strategists) that he also inspires a lot of fear.

With all of the black presidents we have seen on screen, only African-Americans are more likely to elect a black president. For them, the symbols represent possibilities that were perhaps unimaginable before: "Maybe we can win? Maybe we can be successful?" For other groups, the media symbols of Negro success are more likely to inspire fear, or apathy at the very least. I would argue that the lack of support for Obama among Latino Democrats is further evidence of this.

Does this mean that we should go back to being portrayed as maids and field hands? Of course, not. We do, however, have to make sure that we are portrayed in a balanced and realistic manner. It doesn't serve any of us to live in a "fantasy land."


1 comment:

Monroe Anderson said...

Of course Hollywood has helped paved the way for Barack Obama to become a real life president. Many Americans are informed through the images in the movies. That's why so many of them in generations past came to believe we were lazy and stupid ala Stephin Fetchin style.

In our segregated nation, there are millions and millions of white Americans that do not know a black person on a personal level.

The onscreen performances of James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert presented an alternate, enlightened image.