MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
With Barack Obama's candidacy, some Americans and more than a few journalists, have posed the question - is America ready for a black president? Voters are about to answer that question, but Hollywood weighed in long ago.
(Soundbite from movie "Deep Impact")
Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): (President Tom Beck) At some point over the next 10 months, all of us will entertain our worst fears and concerns. But I can also promise you this - we will prevail.
(Soundbite from TV show "24")
Mr. DENNIS HAYSBERT (Actor): (President David Palmer) This is gonna be the second most important day of my life.
Ms. PENNY JOHNSON (Actress): (Sherry Palmer) And what would the first one be?
Mr. HAYSBERT: (President David Palmer) Well, I think you know. It's when I hit the game-winning three against DePaul at the Final Four.
Ms. JOHNSON: (Sherry Palmer) You just lost my vote.
(Soundbite of movie "Head of State")
Mr. CHRIS ROCK (Actor): (Mays Gilliam) And we got nurses that work in hospitals that they can't even afford to get sick in. It ain't right. It ain't right. It ain't right. It isn't right.
NORRIS: That was actor Morgan Freeman in the doomsday film "Deep Impact," Dennis Haysbert in the popular television show "24," which served up not one but two black commanders-in-chief, and Chris Rock in the comedy, "Head of State."
Of course, Hollywood has produced all kinds of presidents we've yet to see in real life - women, Latinos, handsome, single dads who date beautiful, brainy lobbyist. But we wanted to test the question about a black man in the Oval Office. After voters have seen several black presidents on screen, are they more likely to elect one in real life? We put this to Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Professor TODD BOYD (Critical Studies, USC School of Cinematic Arts): I'm a bit hesitant to say that because James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman, you know, or Dennis Haysbert played a president in a television show or in a movie, that, you know, it means Barack Obama can be president. I think that's a bit of a stretch.
NORRIS: When it comes to presidential portrayals, does it make a difference if we're talking about portrayals in film or on television, on television, in particular, in the case of "24," for instance, where David Palmer and later his brother Wayne Palmer were portrayed in that series as black presidents beamed into people's homes every week for a period of time?
Prof. BOYD: When you talk about, you know, a popular television program, it's not, you know, simply the representation on "24," but it's that representation in a larger context where we've seen African Americans do things in the last 10, 15 years that we've not seen before. For people watching a program like "24," perhaps this representation, you know, may have unconsciously made some things in society seem less troubling than it may would have been had this representation not beamed in in the first place.
NORRIS: Let's look back, if we could, and reach way back to that 1972 film, "The Man," where James Earl Jones actually portrayed the president. This was released during a time where America was roiled by the Vietnam War. It was the height of the black power movement. Women's movement was also in full blow. How does Hollywood present this film when it was released and how was it received by the public?
Prof. BOYD: I think, if you look at popular culture in the early '70s, particularly around black representations in Hollywood and on television, you saw a number of things presented as possibilities that no one really considered to be very timely. It was all about, you know, what could happen in the future. You look at that film, "The Man," and it was a film representing a black president. But at the time, you know, you had a lot of groundbreaking imagery taking place, a lot of radical imagery in some cases.
You know, this is the era of, you know, "Deep Throat" and "Super Fly" and "The Exorcist," and so looking back on it, "The Man" didn't necessarily represent any radical representation on the part of Hollywood because you saw representations that were out of the ordinary on a fairly consistent basis because it was, you know, very much a part of that moment.
NORRIS: Now, just for the sake of argument, let's flip that idea around and say - if there is a black man elected as president of the U.S. and then - 2008 or some, at some point in the distant future, instead of looking at how culture might have lead to that, how would that event, then, impact American culture?
Prof. BOYD: Well, you know, the most visible image of America at that point, particularly to the rest of the world, is going to be the president. And if that president is an African-American, what this means is that you're going to see this person's face on television, on the Internet, on the front page of national and international newspapers every day. So it's symbolism. And symbolism is, you know, very important. But it's not the be all and end all. There are things beyond symbolism at some point. Symbols have to be grounded in reality.
And that's when we really start to see and understand the impact of something like this and how it might, in turn, affect, you know, people's perception of American culture.
NORRIS: Todd Boyd, thanks for talking to us. Good to talk to you.
Prof. BOYD: Thank you.
NORRIS: Todd Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.