By J. Hoberman
The Presiding-While-Black Scenario
“When all is said, [the presidency] is a primitive office and inspires the tribes of America to pick up the modes and manners of their chief.” —Norman Mailer, St. George and the Godfather (1972)
“…wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” —2 Nephi 5:21, The Book of Mormon
Rufus Jones for President
President Barack Obama, by several galaxies the most exotic personage to ever hold that primitive office (at least since Ronald Reagan), provides a test for Mailer’s thesis. On the one hand, Obama is a familiar political type who, no less than Bill Clinton, positioned himself—the self-made son of a single mom—as the personification of hope. On the other, he is the most obvious of Others.
The tribes of America are confronted with a fascinating choice. Obama’s challenger Mitt Romney, being a Mormon, is also an Other, albeit less threateningly so—inoculated by the smash Broadway musical comedy The Book of Mormon and the HBO series Big Love, not to mention the president himself. For, since the day Obama took office, a sizeable slice of the electorate has insisted with scarifying vehemence that he’s variously a socialist, a fascist, a Kenyan, a Muslim, a terrorist, or simply “not one of us.”
Unfair but true: Romney may be perceived as the follower of a cult, a slick Gordon Gekkoid venture capitalist, or just a smiling version of the little man in the top hat on the Monopoly board, but our president, before he is anything else, is a black man in America and, in that, and unlike Romney, a being whose arrival has long been foretold—at least in the movies.
Rufus Jones for President
In the beginning there was Rufus Jones for President (33), a routinely degrading 20-minute Vitaphone short released seven months into the New Deal. Ethel Waters appears as a bandana-wearing mammy who dreams that her bullied son, 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr., is elected into the White House. It’s the American Dream and then some. (Campaign placard: DOWN WITH THE REDS, PUT IN THE BLACKS.) Rufus makes his maiden speech before an almost entirely black Senate. “You ain’t never had a president what could do that,” his proud mother exults as the unsmiling child mugs and hoofs like a pro.
Obama may never have seen or heard of this artifact, but Rufus Jones for President dramatizes a scenario evoked every time he playfully does anything the least bit hip—an a cappella riff on Al Green, or slow-jamming the news on late-night TV—or even when he crafts an eloquent speech. From the moment Obama emerged as the Democratic candidate for president, his Republican foes have dismissed him as “an entertainer.” The knock has only grown louder. See the Karl Rove produced anti-Obama spot called “Cool”—which, accompanied by rhythmic chants of “OH-BA-MA” and clips of his greatest hits, ends by asking “After four years of a celebrity president is your life any better?”—and consider it part of the burden of presiding while black.
Another lesson might be gleaned by the pressure applied to President Rufus Jones’s successor, unelected President Douglass Dilman. The Man, a 1972 telefilm adapted by Rod Serling from Irving Wallace’s 1964 bestseller and released to theaters in time for the Nixon-McGovern race, stars James Earl Jones as the Senate’s president pro tempore, a former college professor elevated to the White House by an act of God (or rather several): the president and speaker of the house are both killed when the roof falls in on a summit conference in Frankfurt and the veep suffers an incapacitating stroke. Thus thrust into the Oval Office, the new Leader of the Free World learns the first rule of presiding while black: no uppityness. Anything resembling black anger or militancy must be instantly repudiated.
Although unique for a quarter century, The Man established the underlying condition for a Hollywood black presidency: it is precipitated by, or perhaps precipitates, a catastrophic event. According to the movies, an African-American in the White House signifies disaster. Thus, as the millennium approached, the presidency was increasingly painted black. In The Fifth Element (97), with the entire universe under threat of obliteration, there was Tommy “Tiny” Lister; in the more provincial Deep Impact (98), with a comet hurtling toward Planet Earth, our leader was embodied by Morgan Freeman.
The war on drugs escalates to war under President and former ghostbuster Ernie Hudson in the 1999 straight-to-video Ice-T vehicle Stealth Fighter (less a disaster film than a disaster). But, advancing past 9/11, and to the kinder, gentler Head of State (03) in which Chris Rock played a Washington, D.C. alderman drafted to run for the White House (when, in a relatively minor disaster, the actual candidate’s plane goes down), things got a whole lot heavier. Dennis Haysbert served two seasons as president (2001-03) in the nonstop terror world of TV’s 24 and was succeeded by his “brother” D.B. Woodside. Lou Gossett presided over the Christian-fundamentalist Armageddon of Left Behind: World at War (05) and its sequel Solar Attack (06), as did Terry Crews the cretinous future foretold by Idiocracy (06), and Danny Glover the multi-cataclysms of Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (09).
In the Dream Life, a black man becomes America’s president only once civilization is doomed or life as we know it has come to an end—as it did with the Crash of September 2008 that swept Obama into office.
Obama is not a generic black man but a complex amalgam of America’s racial mix—a “mutt,” as he once described himself, born and largely raised in the one state in America where whites are a minority.* As even his foes realize, Obama is a strange and singular being. During the summer of 2008, Republican candidate Senator John McCain jealously characterized his rival as the World’s Biggest Celebrity or mocked him as the One.
Something similar was happening at the movies. Appropriately for an election year, the summer of 2008 was the season of the comic-book avenger. Four of 2008’s top 10 grossers were superhero films. There was the rakish Iron Man, the reconfigured Hulk, and a kinder, gentler Hellboy. There was Will Smith’s Hancock—an original character!—albeit realistically pissed-off and dissolute and, if too “black” to be president, still wildly popular.
Smith had begun his rise to the top of the annual Quigley list of box-office stars in 2004, the year George W. Bush was reelected—advancing from eighth place to seventh, then third and second, arriving at first in 2008. An omen for sure: ex-rapper and popular TV performer Smith was only the second African-American star to head the Quigley list and the first in the 21 years since Eddie Murphy. (And yet, with a black man in the White House, Smith’s popularity fell off: he has not made the top 10 since Obama’s election.)
Obama could usefully identify with Hancock, but there was someone—or something—else. Opening over the July 4th weekend, Pixar’s WALL•E envisaged an unaccountably optimistic vision of human extinction in which a solitary robot trash compactor single-mindedly organizes the detritus of an abandoned world. As the bloated descendants of the planet’s former inhabitants drift through space in a giant shopping mall, slurping Happy Meals and watching TV, this endearing protagonist is Earth’s last vestige of humanity.
Frank Rich saw WALL•E with an audience of innocent children and was impressed by the rapt attention they gave this “gentle, if unmistakable, summons to remake the world.” A week after the New York Times columnist proposed the lovable robot for president, candidate Obama got the message and, after publicly taking his daughters to see the movie, continued to plug it as “a great flick.” Did Obama identify with the weird little Waste Allocation Load Lifter—community organizer for an extinct community? Or did the American people make the connection themselves and animate Obama with their own yearning for an entity that might assume the custodial task of cleaning up the mess left by two wars, a natural disaster, and an economy teetering on the brink?
The summer of 2008 also belonged to the being that Senator McCain was eager to identify as his favorite superhero: Batman. Obama agreed but qualified his enthusiasm by also mentioning Spider-Man, a character he might have well appreciated as a lonely 8-year-old. (This equivocating qualification, as Americans were to subsequently learn, was typical of Obama’s conciliatory consensus-driven style.) Batman had been newly incarnated in The Dark Knight—a movie set in a recognizable dystopia ruled by the threat of terror, in which the rich live in gated communities and the economy is controlled by the Chinese.
The Dark Knight was rich with 9/11 references but even more insistent was the movie’s ongoing meditation on civic responsibility, due process, and the legitimacy of torture. The Joker was bin Laden in greasepaint. Batman, not coincidentally the richest man in Gotham City, was understood as our leader in the war against the master terrorist—and Batman recognized no limits. Right-wing pundits gratefully embraced the movie as a glorification of their fantasy. The Wall Street Journal praised The Dark Knight as “a paean of praise to [George Bush’s] fortitude and moral courage.” The American Spectator thought that Batman’s capacity for action, his love of risk, and his maverick indifference to public opinion were pure McCain.
Thus, the 2008 election came down to absurd hope (a funny little dingbot can redeem this blighted planet) or miserable fear of that damnable, scary clown. Then catastrophe—Wall Street tanked and, against all odds, but in keeping with time-honored scenarios, hope prevailed. Yet such was the dialectic that, although Batman did not emerge as a mascot for American oligarchy in the aftermath of the stock market crash, his nemesis survived in the Dream Life as public enemy number one. A poster applying Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup to President Obama began appearing at Tea Party rallies during the summer of 2009.
The longing for Obama (or an Obama) predates Obama. The eponymous protagonist of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which opened only weeks after the 2008 election, was positioned as both a gutsy civil rights leader and creative community organizer—not to mention a precedent-shattering politician who, it was very often reiterated, presented himself as a Messenger of Hope and Change.
Obama’s decision, three-and-a-half years later, to come out for marriage equality makes Milk additionally Obama-iste, especially since, as president, Obama has carefully associated himself with straightforward didactic cinema. (He steered clear of the two big Hollywood fantasies on race, The Blind Side and The Help.) The most publicized movies shown in the White House have been episodes from the Spielbergproduced HBO World War II series The Pacific, the HBO biopic Thurgood (with Laurence Fishburne as Justice Thurgood Marshall), a documentary on the Freedom Riders of the early Sixties, and George Lucas’s Tuskegee Airmen production Red Tails. A 50th-anniversary screening of To Kill a Mockingbird was treated as a virtual state occasion. Other movies have been pegged to specific social programs, as when Julie & Julia was shown to promote Michelle Obama’s campaign for a healthy diet.
In his recent Obama biography, David Maraniss reports that a college roommate compared the future president to the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. The inference was not that Obama was a cinephile so much as a detached observer of life—even his own. The White House is discreet about what movies the First Family might be showing for fun. Officially, Obama’s own taste is reasonably informed and cautiously conventional: he’s listed his five favorite movies as The Godfather and its sequel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lawrence of Arabia, and Casablanca (beloved Oscar winners all). His preferred tele-viewing (Homeland, Mad Men, The Wire) is slightly more edgy. From a film-watching point of view, the single most interesting revelation of his presidency was a reported request for a White House screening of Sean Durkin’s Sundance prizewinner Martha Marcy May Marlene.
What was it that piqued the Obama family’s curiosity? Did they mistake the thriller about a fugitive from a cult commune for a youth movie that spoke to the problem of runaway teenagers? Perhaps it was a matter of checking the national pulse: did the Obamas want to see a movie that won a major prize at Sundance and represented the U.S. at Cannes? Or was it a morbid interest in the appeal of the film’s charismatic cult leader? In any case, the president was wise to be discreet. Demonizing right-wing crazies have more than once linked Obama to the Reverend Jim Jones and accused him of plotting to turn the U.S. into a zombie-collectivist-self- destructive Jonestown.
Unlike previous presidents, Obama has had difficulty advancing or inspiring a scenario. (Ominously, Jimmy Carter—whose long-shot success was paralleled by the contemporary phenomenon known as Rocky and who incorporated a UFO close-encounter story into his campaign— had the same problem once elected.) JFK and Bill Clinton both inspired biographical movies—the straightforward, glamorizing PT 109 (63) in Kennedy’s case, the tawdry, debunking Primary Colors (98) in Clinton’s. Wartime presidents Johnson and Nixon both had an impact on the Western; Nixon also presided over the law-and-order policier. Ronald Reagan, himself a creature of the movi-verse, appropriated or insinuated himself into all manner of blockbusters (Star Wars, Rambo, Back to the Future) and was obliged by Hollywood with warnographic Top Gun fantasies and manifestos of exuberant irrationality: “I ain’t afraid of no ghost!” Bush’s two terms were characterized by animated blockbusters and the rise of mega-budget comic-book superheroes.
Most recently, The Avengers—which Obama took care to name-check the Tuesday after it opened, during a guest appearance on The View—reinscribed a fun 9/11 in the dominant Bush mode—albeit with the illusion of depth and a mildly Obamaiste update. America is visualized as a squabbling group of unlikely characters led by Samuel L. Jackson’s unflappable, if tricksy, black dude. This tribal chief might well have been the guy who ordered the hit on Osama.
The absence of a scenario does not bode well for Obama. Still, since he is the least likely of American presidents, there is a naturally Obama-ish aspect to any movie featuring an unconventional protagonist, including “The Mitt Romney Story.”
The Social Network
The Social Network not only serves to remind us that Obama is the first president with a Facebook page but celebrates the rise of a world-historical nerd, Mark Zuckerberg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Haywire, and The Hunger Games are all distinguished by martial young women capable of prevailing over bigger, stronger men in a life-or-death struggle. The logic is underscored by the love showered on Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker—a two-fisted, Howard Hawks–type war movie directed by a lady!—and reinforced by the movie’s unexpected triumph over Avatar at the 2010 Academy Awards. While some conservatives read The Hurt Locker’s Oscar as a patriotic victory over Avatar’s blatant anti-Americanism, the 2011 announcement that Bigelow’s next project would be made with official cooperation and would dramatize the killing of Osama bin Laden raised Republican suspicion that she was part of Obama’s reelection campaign. (The movie, originally to open in October, has since been pushed back to Christmas.)
Yet even the Obama-ish movies can be read two ways: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo inspired rival YouTube parodies, the anti-Obama Guy with the Draggin’ Economy and the ambiguous but funnier Obama Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (in which the president’s diminutive agent disposes of all the Republican presidential hopefuls one by one). The success of The Hunger Games created a more direct struggle as Democrats and Republicans wrestled for possession of the movie’s backstory and its courageous girl fighter Katniss Everdeen: was the dystopia shown in the movie the result of the president’s policies (the grim Obamaland featured in rightwing contender Rick Santorum’s political ads) or was it a metaphor for the Republican nightmare from which the nation was trying to awake? “Katniss is the uninsured,” a Democratic strategist told a liberal TV show host. “Fighting for survival!”
Killing Osama is one thing, cleaning up Bush’s mess is another, and, WALL•E notwithstanding, it’s hardly great movie material—unless, of course, you draft a walking chunk of Mount Rushmore to do your talking for you. The only straightforward version of the Mop & Glo scenario materialized halftime at the Super Bowl in the two-minute Chrysler spot starring Clint Eastwood. Telecast little more than an hour after Obama told a pre–Super Bowl interviewer that he deserved a second term because of his successful economic policies, the spot’s effectiveness may be gauged by the rapidity with which Republican master propagandist Karl Rove attributed it to the president and attacked him for using tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.*
Was a grateful automobile industry engaged in some sneaky quid pro quo, hiring Dirty Harry no less as the mouthpiece for the Obama campaign? “It’s Halftime in America” offered a montage of people all over the nation waking up and resolutely going to work (or going out to look for work). “People are out of work and they’re hurting—wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback,” Eastwood explains. “The people of Detroit know a little something about this—they almost lost everything.” Advancing toward the camera in a kind of purposeful, bin- Laden-is-dead strut, Eastwood might be reflecting on his long life as Rowdy Yates and The Man with No Name, Dirty Harry, and Walt Kowalski, the protagonist of Gran Torino. There’s a subliminal sense of gentle, firm forward motion, created by slow dolly shots and moving cars. “How do we come from behind—how do we come together?”
Clint fixes his squint on some distant prize. “Detroit’s showing us how it can be done.” Obama bailed out Detroit when Mitt Romney—the son of an automobile industry executive and former Michigan governor—said it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done. “Yeah. It’s halftime in America,” Clint concludes. “And our second half’s about to begin.” But what if the game is already over?
More than Iraq or Detroit, southern Louisiana is cinema’s post-apocalyptic Bushland—whether the hell of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant remake or the crazy paradise of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Set in Boston but blatantly filmed in the disaster zone of post-Katrina New Orleans, Andrew Dominik’s anti-capitalist crime film Killing Them Softly features candidate Obama, or at least his image, so prominently that the president could be eligible for a supporting Oscar nomination.
Killing Them Softly
Killing Them Softly opens with Obama’s DemCon acceptance speech: “What is the American promise? It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will” so long as we “treat each other with dignity and respect!” The film goes on to use the 2008 campaign and the unfolding economic crisis as a running commentary on a downbeat tale of lower-underworld chicanery (a depressed zone where even the hit men are taking an economic hit) and ends with Obama’s election. Ecstatic chants of “Yes, we can” counterpoint a cynical monologue on the eternal nature of America’s dog-eat-dog economy delivered by a paid assassin (Brad Pitt)—a downsized, if better-looking, Gordon Gekko as tragic realist.
This vision of mess eternal is scheduled to open as the fall campaign heats up. Premiered at Cannes, the film bore a stench of presidential failure so palpable that Pitt, who also produced, felt obliged to spin its unavoidable message. “We’re going to see more negative ads than ever before,” he told the press, adding “I certainly don’t want this film to in any way be mistaken for that.” Obama’s campaign rhetoric, Pitt added, was not the occasion for “a cynical look back at a statement of failure but as a real expression of hope.” In the star’s hopeful formulation, Obama’s otherness was now the embodiment of hope against hope.
*As such, his coming had also been imagined by Frank Capra around the year of the president’s birth in an unproduced script for the proposed movie of The Best Man (recently revived on Broadway with none other than ol’ Douglass Dilman as president). Capra’s political savior was not Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, or John Doe, but rather the young multiracial governor of Hawaii, who seizes the nomination in a deadlocked convention by appearing dressed as Abraham Lincoln and reciting the Gettysburg Address. (That’s entertainment, too, I suppose.)
*The ad was directed by 36-year-old David Gordon Green, the earnest oddball regionalist turned maker of stoner action comedies. The only personal touch would seem to be Green’s goofy sanctimoniousness and lyrical feel for derelict rural landscapes, although it’s a bit uncanny that his first movie, the 2000 indie production George Washington, would have as its hero a silent, self-contained black kid with a justified sense of destiny, nicknamed for the first president of the United States and thus a corrective of sorts for Rufus Jones. Despite his confidently self-possessed performance, Donald Holden never made another movie.