by Gregory Carr

Colors don’t clash, people just do/Color me happy next to you/Aww, just like it should, there goes the Neighborhood/That is what they’d have us believe/Paint the White House black, brown/Paint the White House…/Paint the White House black, brown/Paint the White House, black…

– GEORGE CLINTON, “Paint the White House Black,” (1993)

The Reconstruction Era indelibly changed American politics. From 1865 until 1875, Blacks became U.S. senators and U.S. representatives from the South during the Reconstruction Era and obtained male suffrage through the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, only to be thwarted by the terroristic activities of the Ku Klux Klan at the polls, Rutherford B. Hayes’ Compromise of 1877, and the implementation of Jim Crow laws. Many people thought before Barack Obama’s unlikely candidacy in 2008 that a Black man becoming president would be practically impossible, given this country’s racialized history and hostility towards Black participation in the political process and Black political leadership. 

This phenomenon did not go unnoticed in Hollywood. D.W. Griffith was the first filmmaker to seize upon the fear of Black leadership with his propagandistic film Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith’s paean to the nobility of the Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative lionized the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and conquerors, while simultaneously demonizing Blacks as shiftless, indolent, violent, and unfit for political office. Hollywood would not challenge Griffith’s cinematic white supremacist ideology until 57 years later with a film featuring America’s first Black president. Hollywood films that feature Black presidents as central figures tend to demonstrate a high level of implicit bias in determining Black men’s fitness to lead while simultaneously perpetuating the “doomsday” trope. The films Idiocracy (2006), The Man (1972), and Deep Impact (1998), foreshadow three fearful apocalyptic themes in the American political psyche: the culmination of white patriarchal rule during a national crisis, the end of moral consciousness in leadership, which leads to the cessation of physical existence.

The culmination of white patriarchal rule has often been used as a rationale for excluding Blacks from elected offices such as the presidency. Hillary Clinton in the now infamous “3 AM” ad questioned whether Obama would know what to do in an international military crisis and if the America people could trust him with their children’s safety. This political tactic is also evidenced in the satirical film Idiocracy. Dwayne Elizondo “Mountain Dew” Herbert Camacho seems to embody this persona of absolute buffoonery. Set 500 years into the future, the film laments the absence of intellectualism in politics. Camacho, a former porn star and wrestler is the president and faces a series of crises such as food insecurity, a drought, and an unstable economy. Private Joe Bauers, a young white military librarian who wakes up in 2505 after a failed cryogenic experiment, solves the incompetent Camacho’s national problems, becomes a national hero, and then becomes president in his place. Camacho’s presidency has been intellectual ruin for the country, which ultimately is rescued by the ubiquitous Hollywood white savior in the form of Bauers. Although this pre-dates the Obama presidency by two years, the aforementioned attacks on Obama’s intellectual capacity to lead now seem prescient in light of the film. Tambay Obenson argues, “The message apparently was only morons would put a Black man in the White House.”

To demonstrate how pervasive this attack on Obama’s intellect was, Ta-Nehisi Coates asserts:

“From the “inadequate black male” diatribe of the Hillary Clinton supporter                    
Harriet Christian in 2008, to Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC against                
subsidizing “losers’ mortgages,” to Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!”            
outburst during Obama’s September 2009 address to Congress, to John            
Boehner’s screaming “Hell no!” on the House floor about Obamacare in                        
2010, politicized rage has marked the opposition to Obama.”

The prevailing assumption with these generalizations was that a Black man could not be entrusted to be the leader of the free world in the same way a Black man previously could not be a quarterback in the NFL – they just simply lacked the leadership skills that only a white man could provide as president – regardless of their ability or inability.

In addition to the culmination of white patriarchal rule, films featuring Black presidents seem to paint a picture of a lack of moral fortitude. Black men’s moral fortitude has often been questioned historically. Although he only received less than 2,000 votes in 1904, George Edwin Taylor ran for president on the National Negro Liberty Party ticket. Was his low vote count because white constituents thought he was of low moral character? Was it because of the many negative connotations of blackness? After Emancipation, Black men were labeled stereotypically as “lazy,” “dangerous,” or “violent.” Noted Swedish scientist Carl von Linnaeus in his classification of the races in his seminal work “Sistema Naturae” classified those of the African race as “‘niger, phlegmaticus, laxus” (“black, phlegmatic, lax’”).   With this negative idea of Black men embedded within the American consciousness, Taylor’s status as an outlier may have made him a liability; however, Taylor’s presence may have also frightened some white voters who believed the stereotypes about Black men’s immoral character through the media, myths, and oral family histories. In film The Man, Douglas Dilman becomes the president through succession as a result of the assassination of the President and the Speaker of the House, the refusal of the Vice-President to assume the office because of health challenges, and the Secretary of State, who rightfully bestow the office upon him because he was President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Stanton’s wife ridicules him for not seizing the power away from Dilman and declare himself President. Eaton agrees to assist Dilman, but only to be the “power behind the throne” who will micromanage Dilman as President. Dilman initially goes along with the scheme but begins to develop confidence in his own abilities to lead the country as president. By the end of the movie, he challenges Eaton for the party nomination and vows to become the first Black President of the United States. This scenario mirrors Obama’s 2008 campaign, in which his then Democratic rival and future Vice-President Joe Biden clumsily stated: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Biden later stated that his comments were taken out of context, but they are clearly racist and demeaning at their core. Translation: “articulate,” (for a Black guy), and “bright and clean,” (acceptable to whites). These dog whistles signal that Obama, like Dilman was more of the exception to the rule rather the than the norm for Black leaders.

Ultimately, a Black president who lacked the intellectual capacity to make crucial decisions during a national crisis and lacked the moral fortitude to inspire and motivate his people who lead to the worst-case scenario – the end of our physical existence.  Since we’re all going to die, we need someone to comfort us in those waning hours. And who better to ease our discomfort than a Black President? President Tom Beck of Deep Impact played by Morgan Freeman gives us a sympathetic ear to face our trials. In the end, he’s powerless to save us from the impending disaster of the doomsday meteorite, but he can make us comfortable with our eventual demise: “Hello, America. It is my unhappy duty to report to you that the Messiah has failed.” The presumption is that if it was the end of the world, a Black president would be acceptable because he would be subservient to his traumatized white constituency – an homage to the self-sacrificing, Integrationist Hero films of Sidney Poitier during the turbulent 1960s.

Although we’re now in a Post-Obama Presidency, hopefully we can see how the racist vitriol and disrespect fueled a toxic Trump Campaign and Presidency. He was the chief architect of the so-called “Birther Movement,” which presupposed that Obama was not an American citizen, was born in Kenya, and therefore should be disqualified as President. These frivolous conspiracy theories along with many other dangerous ones are now a part of mainstream politics. Election Deniers are now viable candidates for statewide and federal offices, and democracy itself is now in peril. The burning question still remains: did Obama paint the White House black? A little – but only time (and perhaps future Hollywood Black Presidents) will tell.

Bibliography 

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Fear of a Black President.” The Atlantic. September 2012 Issue.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/

“A Dubious Compliment.” Time Magazine. January 31, 2007.http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1895156_1894977_1644536,00.html

Judge, Mike, dir. Idiocracy, 2006; Austin, TX: 20th Century Fox.

Justice, John. “11 Movies with Black Presidents to Help You Escape Donald Trump’s Inauguration.” BET.com. January 19, 2017.                              https://www.bet.com/article/5mrv3g/11-movies-to-watch-to-escape-trump-s-inauguration

Leder, Mimi, dir. Deep Impact, 1998; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures.                         

Obenson, Tambay. “Presidents Day Poll: Best Black Presidents on Film; 7 Candidates on the Ballot; Cast Your Votes!” IndieWire. February 15, 2016.

Rönnbäck, Klas. “The Idle and the Industrious – European Ideas about the African Work Ethic in Precolonial West Africa.” History in Africa 41 (2014): 117–45. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26362086.

Sargent, Joseph, dir. The Man, 1972; Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures.                         

“3am Ad.” YouTube, 2008.                                                                                                               

Weeks, Linton. “A Forgotten Presidential Candidate from 1904.” NPR.org. December 1, 2015.       https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/12/01/455267676/a-forgotten-presidential-candidate-from-1904

 

                 

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