Black Presidents Elected Regularly on TV, in Movies
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Hilary Clinton announced that she's running for president this morning on her website. Earlier this week, Senator Barack Obama said that he's forming a presidential exploratory committee. There have been other women and African-Americans who have run for president. Shirley Chisholm ran in 1972. Of course she was both. And African-American presidents have been appearing in films and television for decades, most recently on the Fox drama "24."
(Soundbite of "24")
Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND (Actor): (As Jack Bauer) Mr. President, it's Jack Bauer.
Mr. DENNIS HAYSBERT (Actor): (As President David Palmer) You've threaded the eye of the needle.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Bauer) I had some help, sir. I wanted to thank you for advising me of the situation. Mr. President, you saved my life.
Mr. HAYSBERT: (As President Palmer) I'm only sorry it came to this.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Bauer) Me too, sir. I just wanted to let you know that I was out.
Mr. HAYSBERT: (As President Palmer) I'm glad. This is probably the last time we'll ever speak. Jack, you do understand when you hang up, for all intents and purposes, Jack Bauer's dead.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Bauer) I understand that, sir.
SIMON: That's Dennis Haysbert in "24."
WEEKEND EDITION's entertainment critic, Elvis Mitchell, joins us now from Park City, Utah at the scene of a certain film festival now going on.
Elvis, thanks for being with us.
ELVIS MITCHELL: Scott, if nominated I will not run...
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Well, you run for president with the friends you have, not the friends you'd want. "24" - there have been two African-American presidents. Dennis Haysbert was the first president. During the first season of "24," he was running for president. He was Senator Palmer. And there would be occasional references to you could make history, but the fact of race seemed to be soft-pedaled. And certainly when he was president, it almost never came up.
MITCHELL: I'm really sort of intrigued by is this a suggestion of kind of a Palmer dynasty, that there's this family is held in such high regard, that his presidency did so well, that he was so respected that his brother be voted into office? I actually found that really kind of forward thinking. And after the election, as you put it, it was barely mentioned that he was a black president. And I thought that, in its way - even thought "24" is being pilloried by a number of people as kind of a right wing fantasy - that is breaking down walls that you wouldn't expect to be dealt with in the sort of the context of a right wing drama.
SIMON: Hmm. Who's the first African-American president you can recall seeing on the screen?
MITCHELL: As a kid, I remember seeing this movie "The Man." And what James Earl Jones did in the role is he plays it as sort of the template of the kind of the thoughtful, stern James Earl Jones we've come to expect. But he's aware of his place in history in it. And I don't know if this movie is on home video or not; I don't ever recall seeing it. But I remember the impact it made.
I remember the ads in the paper where they barely dealt with the fact that this history, monumental thing was happening. I saw it on TV in '73 or '74, or something. But just what a huge deal it was for the ads even for this, how controversial it was. And so to go 30 years later to "24," where it's really kind of matter of fact, the kind of hysteria around Obama now is close to what I think we saw in that movie "The Man." And it took somebody was aware of the fact that he had no real constituency, that he was going to take this job to do battle, that's what I remember most about "The Man," how lonely that James Earl Jones figure seemed in that film.
SIMON: Do you notice any similar thread between African-American as they've been portrayed on screen? I know we have a clip of Morgan Freeman coming up. What film - Morgan Freeman was the president in what film?
MITCHELL: It was "Deep Impact." And the joke I used to make, that you could only have a black president in the movie was when the Earth was about to be destroyed. He would never get to complete his term. And that's just the kind of thing that seemed to happen in movies. It something like "The Man," or a meteor speeding towards the earth in "Deep Impact" for a black chief executive to get a chance to step into office. And there were so many other things that had to be dealt with, he wouldn't even get to run a normal term.
SIMON: Let's hear a clip of President Freeman, if we could, from "Deep Impact."
(Soundbite of movie, "Deep Impact")
Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): (As President Tom Beck) Our society will continue as normal. Work will go on. You will pay your bills. There will be no hoarding. There will be no sudden profiteering. I'm freezing all wages, all prices. Now I'll take a few questions.
SIMON: President Freeman giving a stern dose of medicine to the American people in the movie "Deep Impact." James Earl Jones, Dennis Haysbert, now Morgan Freeman, who has also played God; these are people who play very noble chief executives.
MITCHELL: Well, think about James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert, and these are actors who enter a room, their voices enter before they do. They have so much kind of vocal aplomb and verve and stature that it just seems natural because of their bearing as men that they would be cast as presidents. And it's great now, we've arrived at this point where there's been a line of continuation, a lineage, of black presidents, in "24." I think in its way that's going to make a huge difference for a lot of people, because if you see it on TV, it just sort of answers questions for us, and we shouldn't underestimate that.
SIMON: Elvis, I'm curious about something. Geena Davis, most notably in recent years, played a woman president of the United States. I don't think I can recall any markedly Jewish presidents in a Hollywood production. Am I wrong?
MITCHELL: A Jewish president - we have to think too about how a southern president was unthinkable for a long time or a Catholic president was unthinkable at the time he was elected. I think there's certain kinds of things now that these movies and these dramatizations are shown, just by showing how able people can be, that it's no longer an issue for a lot of people. I think it may be an issue more so for the people who are following the campaigns than the actual voting populous.
SIMON: Elvis Mitchell, our entertainment critic here on WEEKEND EDITION, who also hosts "The Treatment" on KCRW and many other public radio stations. Elvis, thank you very much.
MITCHELL: Thank you.