Hollywood’s Leading Man

From Sammy Davis Jr. to Dave Chappelle’s Black Bush, how pop culture tested the waters for a black president.

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Am I gonna be a great man, Mammy?”

“You sho’ is, youse gwine be president. The book says anybody here can be president.”

"Ain’t that somethin’!”

Sammy Davis Jr. and Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President

Before anybody had even heard of Barack Obama, before anyone had even considered his presidency a possibility, it was out there, this notion of a brother as commander in chief. Decades before Dennis Haysbert tried to avert bioterrorist threats on 24. Eons before Morgan Freeman comforted a terrified nation about that massive meteor hurtling toward Earth in Deep Impact. Back, back, way back in the day, Hollywood was ahead of the curve, plugging its candidate for the first black president.

Sammy Davis Jr. Specifically, a 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. tap dancing, clutching a chicken wing and singing “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You,” as part of his acceptance speech in Rufus Jones For President.

Well, it was 1933. But still, with that 21-minute musical short, Hollywood set a tone for a radical notion.

There are those who say that Hollywood prepared Americans for electing a black president, that seeing black presidents—not to mention The Cosby Show—on screen over the decades somehow readied the American psyche for last November’s Great Leap of Faith.

Right before the election, Dennis Haysbert declared, “If anything, my portrayal of David Palmer, I think, may have helped open the eyes of the American people. And I mean the American people from across the boardfrom the poorest to the richest, every color and creed, every religious baseto prove the possibility there could be an African-American president, a female president, any type of president that puts the people first."

24 creator Robert Cochran said: “It’s the job of artists and storytellers to anticipate the future and either spot trends or spot things that ought to be happening. It’s not surprising that these things happen in fiction before they do in real life.”

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