Over the years there have been more than a few black presidents portrayed on screen, and not just on the small screen. Sometimes they’ve appeared in comedic films like Chris Rock’s Head of State (2003) and the 1933 musical comedy short Rufus Jones for President, in which Sammy Davis, Jr., then a child performer, is elected president. The 1972 film The Man starring James Earl Jones as President Douglas Dilman explored race in a serious manner, a rarity at the time. Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of President David Palmer on 24 was so iconic that many viewers believed that it helped make the nation comfortable with the concept of a black president. For the most part, Palmer was universally accepted as president with no real regard to race.
In real life, we haven’t witnessed that same sort of color-blindness. With Tea Party extremists brandishing hate signs and hate speech at demonstrations and agitators like Glenn Beck calling the president “racist” — race is very much a factor that some Americans just can’t get over in this age of Obama. For the most part, film and television have presented idyllic scenarios for a black president. With race largely absent from the discussion in the dramatic films or television shows, fictional black presidents simply had to do their job with no challenges to their citizenship or their capabilities.
Few can deny the role that Haysbert’s President Palmer played in changing perceptions but it will be interesting to see how Blair Underwood portrayal of President Elias Martinez in NBC’s highly anticipated series The Event, premiering Monday, September 20, fares in a time where an America being led black president is very much a reality. Judging by the previews, complexity is at the center of the thriller, which promises to keep viewers on edge pretty much in the vein of 24.
Interestingly, Underwood’s black president is also Latino. If you recall, the very popular West Wing ended with Jimmy Smits’s Matt Santos, who shared many parallels with Obama, becoming president of the United States. So by making Underwood’s Martinez Afro-Cuban The Event is taking this kind of character a step further. Toss in cries for immigration reform and Arizona’s state government-endorsed racial profiling and Elias Martinez is a downright explosive choice as a fictional president, even more so with his wife Christina, played by Lisa Vidal, hailing from Scottsdale, Arizona. Maritnez, himself, hails from Miami.
WATCH A TRAILER FOR NBC’S ‘THE EVENT’ HERE:
Tapping Underwood to play such a character is a very wise casting choice. As an actor, especially on television, Underwood, whose biggest break came when he joined the cast of L.A. Law as attorney Jonathan Rollins in 1987, has, in his own way, been the Obama of television. In 2008 alone, Underwood appeared in three very different roles on three different networks. He was multi-millionaire Simon Elder on ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, schoolteacher and romantic interest Daniel Harris on CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine (starring Seinfeld alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and closeted Navy pilot Alex in HBO’s introspective In Treatment. If that weren’t enough, he brought interracial sparkle to HBO’s lily-white Sex and the City as Miranda’s love interest Robert Leeds, a sports medicine doctor for the New York Knicks.
Still, playing the president is a very big deal. Will Underwood walk the Obama tightrope of likability and capability? Characteristics President Martinez shares with President Obama include a love for music and sports as well as an Ivy League pedigree. As with President Palmer in 24, an assassination plot is also very much at play. Whether it will succeed or not is another question that will undoubtedly fuel The Event, which actually anticipates an even bigger battle. This may be the ultimate merging of conspiracy theories and alien encounters. The whole point is no one quite knows what “the event” is.
It is important to note that, although Underwood plays the POTUS, he is not the center of the show. Jason Ritter’s Sean Walker is. Billed as the “everyman” who just happens upon one of the biggest cover-ups in U.S. history, from this end of things, The Event shows that, while television may indeed be pushing some envelopes, old habits die hard. As colorful as this television season’s new shows appear, it remains to be seen if television will truly follow real life’s lead and place more and more people of color at the center of the action and not just on the sidelines.