10 Black On-Screen Presidents Who Beat Obama to the White House
In his 1998 hit single “Changes,” Tupac Shakur rapped, “Although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready to see a black president.” Little more than a decade later, in 2009, Barack Obama was sworn into the White House, making history as the first African American to head up the federal government.
However, the 44th president of the U.S. was actually beaten to office, albeit fictionally, by several famous black men – including Sammy Davis, Jr. in as far back as 1933. Some believe that such productions on both the small and silver screens somehow prepared the American public, especially Middle America, for the notion of a black president. Others reject this, arguing that an African-American president was inevitable. Either way, here are ten black on-screen presidents who got to the White House before Obama did.
10. Mays Gilliam – Head of State (2003)
In Head of State, outspoken funnyman Chris Rock plays out-of-work alderman Mays Gilliam, his party’s unlikely – and ultimately successful – presidential candidate after their other hopefuls are killed in a freak plane crash. Rock co-scripted, directed and acted in the 2003 comedy – taking a hands-on approach, then, to making a black president an on-screen reality. Meanwhile, the comedian has, according to an interview in New York magazine, met real-life president Barack Obama “a couple of times,” describing him as “kind of cool.” Rock explained, “He’s not cool like Jay Z’s cool… But in a world of politicians…” Perhaps his fictional predecessor even influenced Obama; in 2014 the president said that a tax loophole exploited by businesses just “ain’t right” – one of Gilliam’s catchphrases.
9. David Palmer – 24 (2001-2006)
From 2001 to 2006 Dennis Haysbert played David Palmer, America’s first black commander-in-chief, in Fox action series 24. In 2008 the Associated Press quoted Haysbert as saying, “My portrayal of David Palmer, I think, may have helped open the eyes of the American people” and “prove[d] the possibility there could be an African-American president.” He had expressed similar ideas about his Democrat character in a prior interview with TV Guide. That same year, however, co-star Kiefer Sutherland disagreed. “You don’t honestly believe that our show helped get the first African American into the White House?” he asked BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat. “All we simply did is look to the future.” Palmer was president for two seasons, but was eventually murdered in season five of the show.
8. Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho – Idiocracy (2006)
Terry Crews’ turn as “five-time Ultimate Smackdown champion, porn superstar and president of the United States” Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho may go down as the funniest portrayal of an American head of state in movie history. Perhaps Camacho’s penchant for guns, bling and smack talking doesn’t do the African-American community any favors, but there’s no denying that Crews stole the show in Mike Judge’s 2006 cult comedy, Idiocracy. Camacho retires at the movie’s end, but Crews has still been quizzed about his opinion of Barack Obama, with the NFL-star-turned-actor saying in an interview with WENN that the president is “too nice.” “I know I would lose [my temper],” he said. “[Obama is] skilled at being so diplomatic and cool.”
7. Wayne Palmer – 24 (2003-2007)
Following in his older brother’s footsteps, 24’s Wayne Palmer was revealed to have moved into the Oval Office at the beginning of 2007’s season six. D.B. Woodside, who played Palmer in the show from 2003 to 2007, told The Huffington Post that his Democrat character “made the idea of a black president more palatable, especially for Middle America.” Unfortunately, Palmer never got to run for a second term: like his sibling predecessor, he was killed off. His short-lived TV presidency did, however, coincide with Obama’s rise, leading to perhaps inevitable comparisons. Woodside was uncomfortable with this, telling People, “My guy starts out completely unsure of himself; I don’t get that from Barack Obama in any way.”
6. Douglass Dilman – The Man (1972)
Another respected African-American actor to have taken up residence in the White House is James Earl Jones. Famous for his booming, authoritative voice, the veteran performer’s Oval Office spell came in 1972 when he played president-by-default Douglass Dilman in political drama The Man, based on Irving Wallace’s namesake novel. The movie ends with Dilman determined to be the next elected president. Jones himself believed that Dilman had no “racial axes” to grind and was merely passionate about “the national good.” Similarly, when speaking on the BBC’s This Week in 2010, the actor said that the celebrations surrounding Obama’s presidential election “should have lasted only as long as it takes to say, ‘Hip hip hooray.’” He added, “After that, the energy should go toward making it all worthwhile.”
5. The 40th President of the United States – The Richard Pryor Show (1977)
Never cautious of controversy, trailblazing funnyman Richard Pryor showed off his no-nonsense approach to comedy in 1977 series The Richard Pryor Show. Sadly, the sketch show was canned following just four outings, having been deemed too hot for TV by network NBC. Among The Richard Pryor Show’s cast of characters, perhaps one of the most memorable is Pryor’s 40th president of the United States. In a classic scene, he seems surprisingly subdued while answering various questions and highlighting the disparities between white and black America. The president becomes more animated later, though. When pressed on whether he plans to continue dating white women, he replies, “As long as I can keep it up” – joking that this is the reason why the White House is “white.”
4. Rufus Jones – Rufus Jones for President (1933)
“Sammy Davis Jr. was a true pioneer,” said legendary music producer Quincy Jones in a People magazine interview. Furthermore, Jones remarked, Davis “helped remove the limitations on black entertainers” and “made it possible” for the likes of Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy to enjoy successful careers. Davis’ path to stardom began in childhood; aged just seven, he made his silver-screen debut as a remarkably young African-American president in Warner Bros.’ 1933 musical comedy Rufus Jones for President. Now roundly criticized for reinforcing negative racial stereotypes, the short movie depicts Jones’ presidency as nothing more than a childhood dream. Despite this lightheartedness, and the production’s perceived racism, some consider the 21-minute picture a significant landmark in musical history.
3. Black Bush – Chappelle’s Show (2004)
In 2004 Dave Chappelle apparently channeled Pryor’s skit as America’s first black president by playing a hilariously outspoken Black Bush in Chappelle’s Show. The comedy series – also featuring Black Bush’s softly spoken sidekick Black Tony Blair (Jamie Foxx) – supposedly had a celebrity-politician fan in the form of Barack Obama. This is according to Neal Brennan, its co-creator, who met the president in 2011. He told The Wrap that Obama said, “Oh man. We love that show. In fact, that’s gotta be considered one of the greatest shows of all time.” The president also joked that Chappelle “just [got] up and retire[d]” when he felt like it – a luxury that isn’t afforded to the real-life White House incumbent.
2. Tom Beck – Deep Impact (1998)
Morgan Freeman is one of Tinseltown’s most highly regarded thespians, and has taken on the roles of both God and Nelson Mandela. Moreover, in 1998 Freeman starred in blockbuster disaster flick Deep Impact as cool-headed U.S. president Tom Beck – duties include breaking the news that a gigantic comet will soon strike Earth. A couple of suitably Freeman-like soliloquies are delivered throughout the movie, including a stirring final speech about starting over. Interestingly, Freeman also played the acting president in 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen, and was asked by TV One if he’d taken inspiration for his portrayal of Allan Trumbull from Barack Obama. “I think Barack may have an inner Morgan,” replied Freeman. “He’s almost half my age. I was in the White House first and he knows it.”
1. President Lindberg – The Fifth Element (1997)
In 1997 former wrestler Tommy “Tiny” Lister played Earth’s commander-in-chief President Lindberg in Luc Besson’s sci-fi hit The Fifth Element. However, as is the case with cult animated series Futurama featuring Richard Nixon’s head as president of Earth, there’s something distinctly American about this supposed global leader. Facing an intergalactic threat from another dimension, Lindberg and co. face off against an ominous black ball of fire rapidly approaching Earth. Fortunately, though, the president is still around to enjoy a safe planet at the end of the movie. In an interview with the Guardian Liberty Voice, Lister joked, “You need to tell Barack Obama that you’re talking to the first black president in a $100 million-dollar film. Tell Barack, ‘Step in line.’ He’s, like, number six.”