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November 13, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Barack Obama isn’t the first black president of the United States. He’s just the first real one. Black presidents have been appearing on movie screens since at least 1933, according to www.slate.com.
In “Rufus Jones for President,” Sammy Davis Jr. took office, despite still being a child. It proved to be what’s known in movie speak as a “dream sequence,” decades before Martin Luther King stirred a nation with the words, “I have a dream.”
More recent years have seen black movie presidents from James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman to Chris Rock. Fox TV’s series “24” has had two: Dennis Haysbert, followed by D.B. Woodside.
None of this diminishes the monumental significance of the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. It’s just to note that the movies have been way ahead of history, and society in general, on this point.
Perhaps by putting men of color — and, in other cases, women — into the Oval Office so matter of factly, movies and television were an early crack leading to this seismic shift in our consciousness.
The curious merging of presidential politics and Hollywood fantasies goes back to the infancy of the movie industry. Among Joseph Kennedy’s other business ventures in the 1920s was a movie studio that went on to become RKO Pictures.
When his son John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president in 1960, it was in part because the young leader sensed the power of the still-young medium of television. Along with his and his family’s telegenic faces, vigor and style, his new frontier was where mythology met the new technology.
That dream was called Camelot.
JFK, along with Martin Luther King, is invoked as a reference point for the remarkable oratorical gifts of President-elect Obama. The ability to inspire with words is perhaps a leader’s greatest power. But Kennedy and King were calling out in uncharted territory, where words didn’t just carry through the air, but through the airwaves, reaching millions, and then billions, of listeners.
Last week’s election made the world feel new and uncharted again. Chicago’s Grant Park, where Obama accepted the mantle and challenge of victory, was a setting for “Medium Cool,” a 1969 movie set against the rioting and clash between protesters and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
And here, 40 years later, was the culmination of those protesters’ dreams — a mixed-race, anti-war candidate who had been dubbed by his opponent the most liberal senator in the United States.
What’s the difference between a dream and a fantasy? Where was the line in this election? Was it the moment vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her mirror-image impressionist, Tina Fey, literally crossed paths on “Saturday Night Live”?
When Brent Skowcroft, national security adviser to former presidents Nixon, Ford and the first George Bush, was on CNN Sunday morning talking about the legacy of the current President Bush, he was asked about a scene in the new movie “W.”
Will film director Oliver Stone’s version of our 43rd president — as the son who never lived up to the expectations of his father, and pretty much took the country down with him —be the one for the history books?
Or how about Maui Film Festival honoree Dennis Quaid’s presidential portrayal in the darkly satirical “American Dreamz,” as a Texas dimwit who winds up trying to rescue his foundering presidency by becoming a judge on “American Idol”?
No wonder the crowds at Sarah Palin rallies, egged on by Hank Williams Jr., were so eager for culture war, ready to boo the slightest suggestion of all those Al Gore-worshipping, Pilates-practicing, Prius-driving, polar-bear-hugging, antidepressant-popping “beautiful people” out there in Hollywood.
If it’s us vs. them, those are the only choices. This polarized, all-or-nothing, fact-or-faith, black-or- white mind-set brought us into this new millennium, dividing and conquering our spirit in the process.
If it’s us vs. them, then it’s their turn to learn what it feels like to go to bed with apocalyptic nightmares of what the guy in the White House is liable to do.
The kind of hope Barack Obama speaks of transcends these divisions. It’s one more thing for him to make good on — as though he didn’t have enough already. It’s one more thing for us all to make good on.
But on the morning of Nov. 5, one thing was clear: It hadn’t been a dream sequence. This time it was for real.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com
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