Is Obama a Hollywood Creation?
Barack Obama's run for the presidency is making history. Some would contribute the groundbreaking event to the Civil Right movement, to American liberalism, or to a voter backlash resulting from the war in Iraq and to the failure of the government to prevent 9/11. No doubt all played some part. But, one of the most overlooked factors is the increasingly prominent roles of black actors in blockbuster films.
I never thought that I would live to see a black man nominated to run for the most important political office in the United States, or the world for that matter. Obama's impressive showing is not just a victory for black people, but a great victory for America.
I can remember in the 1960's attending afternoon matinees with my friends. Almost every Saturday the local theater offered up a carte du jour of Tarzan of the Apes, Elvis Presley, or John Wayne. Unlike our fathers, we were spared having to digest portions of Steppin Fitchit's monkey shine or Amos and Andy's buffoonery. In their rare appearances, black actors donned the roles of slaves, maids, butlers and servants, oftentimes with more than a touch of minstrel antics and Stagolee-like bravado. Hollywood still preferred black caricatures over black characters.
Importantly, during the fifties, Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte won Hollywood acclaim in dramatic roles and planted the seeds of progressive change in the film industry. Some argued that the roles were assimilations role, Uncle Tom roles. To them I say: some unsatisfied with the pace of progress called both Martin Luther King and Booker T. Washington uncle toms. But, no one today can refute the fact that they knocked down barriers and reshape the way American thought about color. During this same period, Hollywood turned out quality films like Carmen Jones (with the great Dorothy Dandridge) and A Raisin in the Sun (with its all-star cast). The American public (blacks and whites) helped to turn them into both into box office gold.
In the seventies, Hollywood churned out films designed exploit black people's hunger for black heroes: Super Fly, Across 110th Street and Shaft were created to meet the demand. Blacks got their heroes, but at a dear price. In contrast to roles of the fifties, black roles lacked depth and were robbed it there universality. The world stage was narrowed to ghetto backdrops, where pimps, drug dealers and gun totting ruffians replaced Buckwheat, Black Sambo, and Picaninny. The black image continued to suffer from the legacy of racism. While these 'blaxploitation' films afforded many actors the opportunity to apply their trade, the stereotypical roles would typecast many of them in the long run.
Did Hollywood purposefully set out to degrade black people? Let just say that Hollywood has always played it safe and rarely ventured beyond what they thought white America wanted to see. So, for the most part, Hollywood can be accused being cowards in the faces of racist tradition. But, time would suggest thatHollywood should have given white audiences more credit.
By the nineties, Television depiction of the blacks made the giant leap from "Goodtimes" to "The Cosby Show". Meanwhile, Hollywood was casting black as generals (Morgan Freeman in Virus), corporate moguls (Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea), and presidents (Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, even God (again, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty). Ironically, just a few years ago, Chris Rock starred in the film, Head of State, which figured a black man running for president. Although, suggesting a slim and unlikely possibility (due to a broad cultural schism), the film gave a glimpse of things to come.
Thousands of white voters lined up for hours to gain admission to the venues where Obama was speaking revealed a fundamental change in America. I couldn't help but conclude that Hollywood had been powerful agent. Although, I'm not suggesting that Hollywood alone prepared the way. But one can argue that seeing is believing. That is to say that black seen in powerful leadership roles may have compelled millions of Americans to rethink race, and consequently, politics.
That is to say that Dennis Haysbert's portrayal of a black president on the award winning television show '24' may have paved the way for an Obama. When I wrote American Messiah (about a mystical black child resurrecting American from the bowels of hell) the plot seemed farfetched, even more fanciful than the apocalyptic theme itself.
Was the literary marketplace ready for such a bold, black image I asked myself? At the time, I had my doubts. However, today it seems quite plausible. Seen in the context of American values and traditions (religious and secular), a black man or woman can represent an American Icon. Does it mean that race, with the aide of Hollywood casting, has been rendered a dead issue? Definitely not. But, a giant step has been taken with the success of Barack Obama, and the future remains to be written.