celebrating people of color in the arts

How the Movies Made a President

In film on January 18, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Sidney Poitier with Katharine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” (Everett Collection, courtesy of The New York Times)

Sidney Poitier with Katharine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” (Everett Collection, courtesy of The New York Times)


In today’s New York Times, film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott argued that “Evolving cinematic roles have prepared America to have a black man in charge.”  In light of  the many films–annoyingly too many–that confine black men to stereotypical, demeaning, and one-dimensional roles (the “yes massuh” slave, glorified gangsters, absent fathers, rappers with nothing else to talk about than rims and bling, oh and the latest trend of the fat-suit wearing, cross-dressing black comedian), my first response to Dargis and Scott was “Have you two missed the last 50 years of cinematic history?”

Well, clearly they think not. With examples like the presidencies of James Earl Jones in “The Man,” Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact,” Chris Rock in “Head of State” and Dennis Haysbert in “24”, Dargis and Scott argue that Americans were being prepared for “Mr. Obama’s transformative breakthrough before it occurred.”  

Dargis & Scott: “Make no mistake: Hollywood’s historic refusal to embrace black artists and its insistence on racist caricatures and stereotypes linger to this day. Yet in the past 50 years — or, to be precise, in the 47 years since Mr. Obama was born — black men in the movies have traveled from the ghetto to the boardroom, from supporting roles in kitchens, liveries and social-problem movies to the rarefied summit of the Hollywood A-list. In those years the movies have helped images of black popular life emerge from behind what W. E. B. Du Bois called “a vast veil,” creating public spaces in which we could glimpse who we are and what we might become.”

As much as I agree that there have been some cinematic roles that have broken down and broken through barriers for black men, we have to keep in mind that the roles (“savior, counselor, patriarch, oracle, avenger, role model, hero”) played by these men are fictional – their successes and acceptance in America carefully crafted and plotted.

President Obama doesn’t have that luxury. He has no script.   – Grace A. Ali 

Read more at The New York Times





  1. Interestingly enough, one could say that President Obama has many similarities to African-American presidents on the silver screen – some of which we could do without.

    The idea of him being President as the nation is in desperate need of help draws a parallel to the undertones of those films mentioned. Just a thought.

  2. About the New York Times article:

    I was fully prepared to write a rebuttal to Grace Ali’s criticism of the Times’ article “How the Movies Made A President.” I read A.O. Scott and Manholia Dargis’ article keeping in mind that the piece was just a naïve reflection of the industry’s insensitive portrayal of black characters in film. Obama’s acceptance into the world of politics was bound to bring forward some racial gullibility. I’ve already seen the message of “Hope” used as a blanket of convenience, an attempt to mask any previous indiscretions towards persecution or ignorance. To that I would say, “Change is the point.” Caucasoids have been saying genealogically incorrect things since they figured out how to speak in caves.
    Let’s not dwell…Right?
    That’s when I hit the 4th to last paragraph in the NYT article, describing Yoda as the spiritual negro that guides Luke Skywalker on his heroic path.
    Uh, did someone at the New York Times liken black actors to an emerald swamp creature with Frank Oz’s hand up his butt? Lordy…I would have preferred that they sited “Amos and Andy” instead.
    Besides, everyone knows that, truly, the raven-colored Darth Vader and the silky smooth Lando Calrissian we’re the onyx that connected the stars in that galaxy far, far away.

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