Black commander-in-chief: From fiction to reality
By KATHRYN De SHIELDS
On the night of Nov. 4, the seemingly impossible happened; a black man was elected U.S. president. However, people have been viewing black presidents for a while on television and on the big screen. The progression of black roles in television and film throughout the years has improved just as black people have advanced in image and status.
Eleanor Earl teaches screenwriting, film criticism and Introduction to Motion Picture courses at Hampton University. Although the English professor is originally from Virginia, she has lived all over including Atlanta, New York, California and London.
“We’ve come a long way,” Earl said. “Earlier images gave cause for great concern. It was discouraging to have to watch and be bombarded with negative images and stereotypes of black men.”
In the 1930s, blackface, or minstrel shows, was a common performance put on by white men where they would use grease paint or burned cork to darken their faces and imitate “dandified coons,” or “darkies.” A dozen years later, black people where imitating plantation days with ethnic speech and exaggerated features on television. However, no matter how dark their skin was, they had to put on “blackface.” Common roles played then, the mammy figure and Uncle Tom can still be seen in television today.
Phill Branch moved to Virginia from California to teach at Hampton University. In Los Angeles he worked as a writer, producer and in entertainment brand marketing. Recently he has launched a Web site, IllProfessors.com, that focuses on movies, television, music and literature reviews.
“There are seven main archetypes in television and film for black people,” Branch said. “The mammy figure, the strong buck, a magical negro, the tragic mulatto and so on. The thing is if you watch television closely, even when the character is not made out to be a definite mammy figure…she still has mammy characteristics.”
Despite black people’s beginnings in television, forward motion has been made. However, there is still discontent about how black people, particularly black men, are portrayed.
Even now, stereotypes and negative imagery of black men can be found on television and in movies when African-Americans are cast in roles such as gang members, dead-beat dads and heavy drug users or pushers. Branch and Earl believe that some of these roles are necessary in the industry.
“I don’t think someone being a criminal is a negative portrayal, it makes things more realistic,” Branch said. “I think the whole positive and negative conception is tricky though, not useful.”
“We wouldn’t want cookie-cutter perfect images because there are black robbers, gang members and so on,” Earl said. “Directors have a right to explore that part of society.”
According to Branch, the main problem that people have when it comes to television and film’s portrayal of black people is that there isn’t enough variety. When the television and film industry capitalizes off of subject matter at the expense of someone or thing, that’s when things become negative.
“When you have BET constantly showing videos filled with naked women and gangsters, I have a problem,” Branch said. “We need more diversity; things shouldn’t just lead in one direction.”
Branch believes the true issue concerning television is whether or not shows allow a viewer to see the full spectrum.
“It’s not that Hollywood is not letting us play powerful roles,” Branch added, “… it’s that we aren’t showing those roles ourselves as black people, in real life. We can’t expect other people to be in the business of making sure that the black image is appropriate.”
To some, having black men playing the role of president on television aided Obama in winning the election. Because it is now a familiar sight on movies and television shows, it has helped the public accept it as a possibility.
Keesha Wilson, a five-year MBA major from Pasadena, Calif., believes that the movies do a good job of keeping things realistic.
“Just as seeing interracial dating on TV has allowed for it to be more acceptable,” Wilson said, “seeing minorities in positive position of powers has allowed for society as a whole to become more comfortable with the idea.”
Kyle Winfield, junior theater arts major from Orange County, Calif., says that the movies are still too overly dramatic with not enough substance.
“It’s entertaining but it isn’t real,” Winfield said. “It’s still just acting in the end although it does look good on TV.” Obama winning the election, he said, can dispel the illusions that Hollywood has put up about the presidency being one intense situation after another.
“Obama will show America what a real black president is like,” said Winfield. “It’s not going to be just yelling orders or looking stressed out when he finds out there is a bomb somewhere.”
In 1997, Tommy “Tiny” Lister played as president in the sci-fi movie “5th Element.” As president, he was depicted as a brute and wasn’t a positive portrayal of what a black president could be.
However a year later in “Deep Impact” Morgan Freeman played president and was calm, collected and carried himself in a more respectable manner. In FOX television series “24” starring Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer, a black president is shown handling intense situations, like the impending doom of humanity.
“I think that black men are portrayed a lot better than we give television credit for,” said Branch.”We see black cops and lieutenants, presidents, hospital managers, business men and women on shows; we see a lot of diverse images.
Chris Rock plays the part of a black president in the movie “Head of State,” a comedy displaying what it might look like if a young, black man ran for president. In the movie, Rock uses hip-hop music to endorse his campaign and represents extreme stereotypes as he makes his way to the top.
“It’s interesting because although the movie was made as a speculative comedy, now there’s not a punch line,” Branch said. Obama used musicians such as Will.i.am, John Legend and Stevie Wonder to strengthen his campaign by reaching out to younger generations.
“Head of State was letting people know that this is possible,” Branch said. “This is where we’re headed.”
The writer is a junior at Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.