After Bernie Mac got in trouble at a Barack Obama fundraiser the other week for telling... well, typical Bernie Mac jokes, I got to wishing, yet again, that politicians could tell the blunt truth the way comedians do. I briefly imagined a no-language-barred, HBO-sponsored debate between Republican Dennis Miller and Democrat Chris Rock.
Then I remembered.
Just five years ago the idea of a black president wasn't merely a joke. It was the comic premise of a whole movie, Chris Rock's “Head of State.”
Rock, with Bernie Mac as running mate, walked similar territory that Eddie Murphy had visited a decade earlier, in “The Distinguished Gentleman.” But Murphy's con man congressman, who gets elected because of the lucky coincidence of having the same name as the dead incumbent (“Vote Jeff Johnson, the name you know,” he says, borrowing yard signs from the widow) could have been any shady character of any shade.
Other fictional black presidents, like Dennis Haysbert's character in “24,” have fallen into the just-happens-to-be category. And in 1972, James Earl Jones took a serious take on the subject as “The Man.” But “Head Of State” bases its humor almost entirely on a notion that seemed laughable in 2003:
Narrator: “It seems that for the first time in history a BLACK MAN WILL BE PRESIDENT…” (on screen: people in white suburbia running to the polls in terror to vote against him).
The idea was so far-fetched that Rock wasn't even going to imagine a black candidate winning the nomination in his own right, from a strong base as a senator from a large state. His character, Washington, D.C., alderman Mays Gilliam, was a last-minute stand-in, picked by the Democratic National Committee when the presidential and vice presidential candidates died in plane crashes. (Unlike most political fiction, Rock actually names the parties instead of using thinly-disguised stand-ins.)
Rock said he based the scenario in part on Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential campaign of 1984, the idea being that a party nominates a first-of-her-kind candidate in a no-chance election to gain goodwill with that constituency for the next election. A last-minute stand-in candidate also appears in Fletcher Knebel's novel “Dark Horse,” in which a New Jersey turnpike commissioner gets a presidential nomination when the candidate dies. And “The Man” also took a convoluted path to the presidency: The president and House speaker die, the vice president is too infirm to take office, and James Earl Jones, as president pro tem of the Senate, is sworn in.
The real-life Rock and the fictional Gilliam are largely interchangeable, as the Hollywood pitch for this film was probably five words: “Chris Rock runs for president.” Obama would likely distance himself from Rock's non-PC language, just as he did with Bernie Mac. Rock himself acknowledges that his cussing merely adds emphasis but is not central to his point.
Gilliam is portrayed as a decent, hardworking local official, and the film sells the notion that Everyman can be the president, like Kevin Kline in “Dave.” The usually brilliant Rock went for the easy joke a few too many times in “Head of State”: White people try to get down and fail, a campaign logo looks like gold rapper jewelry, etc.
But in the movie's high point, when Rock/Gilliam tears up a ghostwritten speech and speaks from the heart, we hear a platform of progressive social policy mixed with personal responsibility that's not so far from Obama's message.
Gilliam: They had a speech written for me about what the people need. But you guys are the people. You know what you need.
Better schools. Better jobs. Less crime.
How many of you, right now, work two jobs just to have enough money to be broke?
That ain't right.
If you work two jobs, and at the end of the week you got just enough money to get your broke ass home...
Let me hear you say, "That ain't right!"
Crowd: That ain't right!
Gilliam: If your child's school has old-ass books and brand-new metal detectors, let me hear you say, "That ain't right!"
Crowd: That ain't right!
Gilliam: How many of you work in a city you can't afford to live in?
Crowd: That ain't right!
Gilliam: How many of you work in a mall you can't afford to shop in?
Crowd: That ain't right!
Gilliam: That ain't right! How many of you clean up a hotel you ain't never gonna be able to stay in? We got nurses that work in hospitals they can't even afford to get sick in.
Consider for a moment this excerpt from Obama's Father's Day speech, the one Jesse Jackson was so upset about:
We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child -- it's the courage to raise one.
That's a PC-language version of part of Chris Rock's most famous routine. I'm advised not to use the correct title, as it uses the eighth word you can never say on television. Let's just say the name compares and contrasts two types of African-Americans.
They'll brag about stuff a normal man just does. They'll say something like, “Yeah, well, I take care of my kids.” You're supposed to, you dumb (Oedipal word). “I ain't never been to jail.” Whaddya want? A cookie? You're not supposed to go to jail, you ignorant low-expectation (Oedipal word)!
The closing debate in “Head of State” set a stage that could have packed a similar punch but fell short, and was cheapened by a little unnecessary crudity which added nothing to the point. But his opponent's closing statement could be copied and pasted into the McCain campaign's talking points:
Alderman Gilliam can be captivating and entertaining. But America needs more than that from its Commander in Chief. To lead America, it takes experience. And to me, America is like a fine performance car. And now is not the time to turn this fine vehicle we call America over to the hands of an amateur.
Rock/Gilliam responds with an Obama-like shot at the experience argument:
You're right, Vice President Lewis. I am an amateur.
When it comes to creating so many enemies that we need billions of dollars to protect ourselves, I'm an amateur.
When it comes to creating a drug policy that makes crack and heroin cheaper than asthma and AIDS medicine, I'm an amateur.
But there's nothing wrong with being an amateur. The people that started the Underground Railroad were amateurs. Martin Luther King was an amateur.
Have you ever been to Amateur Night at the Apollo? Some of the world's best talent was there: James Brown, Luther Vandross, Rockwell, the Crown Heights Affair.
But you wouldn't know nothing about that. Why? Because when it comes to judging talent and potential, you, my friend, are an amateur!
Back in real life, Rock has publicly supported Obama, recording a robo-call to New York voters before Super Tuesday and introducing Obama on one occasion while slinging zingers at black politicians who endorsed Hillary Clinton: “You’d be really embarrassed if he won and you wasn’t with him. ‘I had that white lady. What was I thinking? What was I thinking?’”
Mays Gilliam faced less of a challenge than Barack Obama does. He only had to appeal to a niche of the population, the core Chris Rock constituency. Anyone offended by a word here or a stereotype there could opt out of the electorate. And he had the advantage of Rock writing the script and the election results. Obama needs more, and has to walk a tighter rope that a freewheeling fictional candidate.
But you can still imagine, and sometime when one imagines, real life catches up to fiction.