There’s little doubt that Martin Luther King Jr. helped pave the way for Barack Obama’s presidency.
But Chris Rock?
An article by two New York Times movie critics argues that film and TV portraits of African-American men as authority figures – everything from James Earl Jones as the first black president in 1972’s underrated “The Man” to Chris Rock’s comic turn in “Head of State” – helped the country imagine Obama’s “transformative breakthrough.”
“In a modest way, they also hastened its arrival,” ” Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott write in the piece, headlined, "How the Movies Made a President.
It’s a provocative theory: entertainment media that still all-too-often reinforces negative stereotypes can play a key role in trailblazing change.
Dargis and Scott tackle about a half-century of movies and television – spanning Obama’s lifetime – invoking Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby, among others, as creating evolving archetypes with impacts on attitudes toward black men.
The Times duo dub box-office superstar Will Smith the “Black Messiah” for his varying roles as an action hero and moral compass with films ranging from “Hancock” to “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
Could the argument be extended to other firsts? Perhaps Bing Crosby as singing priest Father O’Malley in “Going My Way” in 1944 and Spencer Tracy as tender-hearted, tough-love Father Flanagan in 1938’s “Boy’s Town” subliminally helped voters accept John F. Kennedy as the country’s first – and only – Catholic president a generation later.
Will Cherry Jones’ role on “24” get us closer to a woman president?
The pitfalls – and the joy – of discussions like these is that there’s no way to really know. But there’s the danger that Obama’s own hard work and the struggles of those, past and present, who shed their blood, sweat and tears to make this day happen won’t get their fair due.
In the real world, Barack Obama will have to be the hero of his own story. And the script, as Dargis and Scott note, “has yet to be written.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.