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Is there 'hope' in Hollywood?

By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 29, 2010

Indiscreet and indelicate as those statements are, they are sadly accurate. Whatever he might be as a person and leader, Obama won in part because he resembled a comfortable stereotype, one that white audiences were familiar with from the movie screen.

Oaf of office?
The road that took black people to the White House might have been paved in part by movie images. If so, it was a bumpy ride, with the steps comprising a mini history of Hollywood racial stereotypes.

As it turns out, the first African-American to make it into the Oval Office onscreen wasn't one of Bogle's black saints. That honor goes instead toeight-year-old Sammy Davis Jr., who in 1933 sang and danced his way into the West Wing inthe 21-minute short Rufus Jones for President.

But with the dawn of the civil-rights movement in the '50s, such demeaning stereotypes — the mammies, clowns, menials, and minstrels played by such long-suffering actors as Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel — were no longer appropriate. They were replaced by those impossible paragons of virtue played by actors like Poitier and Harry Belafonte.

It took nearly four more decades, but finally one of these black saints made it into the Oval Office:James Earl Jones in The Man, Joseph Sargent's 1972 adaptationof the 1964 Irving Wallace bestseller. To be sure, he had to go a long way around the block to get there. Both the president and Speaker of the House are killed when a building collapses, and the ailing VP declines the office since he's about to kick the bucket himself. So Jones's Senate Pro Tem leader is next in line. Plausibility wasn't the film's long suit; no wonder they got The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling to write the screenplay.

Two decades later, a saintly Morgan Freeman would take office in Mimi Leder's Deep Impact (1998). This time a disaster doesn't put a black man in office — instead, it seems, a black man being in office puts the disaster in motion: a comet is on a collision course with Earth. Freeman's president is clean and articulate . . . but ineffectual.

In 2003, Chris Rock tried on a different presidential image as he hit the campaign trail in Head of State. Once again, these circumstances take place only when a catastrophe strikes — the party's previous presidential and vice-presidential nominees are killed in a plane crash. Rock's character dumps the squeaky clean image his handlers try to foist on him and instead sports bling and FUBU and Rock's brash hip-hop comedy. But by the time Bernie Mac becomes his running mate and starts slapping everyone in the face, you've got to ask yourself: is this progress?

Looking back at these films, three patterns emerge. First, if a black guy wants to be elected president, he's got to be a clown or an emasculated stuffed shirt. Second, it helps his electability if any alternative white candidates are killed off in a freak accident. And finally, once a black man is ensconced in office, something terrible will happen.

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  Topics: Features , Barack Obama, Barack Obama, World Politics,  More more >
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