In 2003, comedian Chris Rock wrote, directed and starred in a movie called “Head of State.” It was a minor hit that faded from memory, but history has caught up with the movie and made it relevant or, at the very least, a curiosity.
The film centered on a black man not only running for president, but being elected. When it was released, the film almost played like a fantasy with a maybe some day aura. That some day is now here and on Jan. 20 Barack Obama will have his inauguration.
As a satire “Head of State” never reaches the levels of something like “Dr. Strangelove,” but it does have moments of incisive humor. Any satire where a Republican candidate’s slogan is “God bless America and no place else” is at least doing something right.
The set up for the film is that Rock’s Mays Gilliam is chosen as a last minute replacement candidate after a freak accident kills the Democratic Party’s ticket. The democrats know they are going to lose the election, but choose a black man to appeal to the minority vote that will then come out to support the party’s nomination in the next election.
Rock has said the inspiration for the film came from the 1984 Walter Mondale/Geraldine Ferraro ticket. As Rock sees it the Democratic Party knew they couldn’t beat Reagan/Bush and ran a woman for vice president to get the female vote in later elections.
The premise isn’t bad satirically, but loses some sting given that Obama has been elected, but no one saw Obama coming. The idea of a black president being elected still seemed miles away in 2003 and even last year many didn’t think it was possible, so it isn’t fair to hold that against the film.
It is Rock’s execution that steals a lot of the thunder from the set up. Rock admitted during his appearance on “In the Actor’s Studio” that the film was shot like a Mel Brooks comedy. The humor is very much in the same broad vein, which could have worked if Rock’s screenplay kept the jokes coming fast and didn’t try to force an obligatory love subplot.
After playing ball for a while, Rock’s Gilliam adopts a hip hop style and attitude that galvanizes his campaign. This allows for some quick laughs, but doesn’t ring true. That being said, when Rock let’s loose with the razor sharp observations that make his stand-up comedy so strong the film finds a voice.
In a debate scene that will seem familiar to anyone who followed this last election, even with only cursory interest, Rock’s Gilliam is accused of being an amateur. Rock retorts back:
“I am an amateur. When it comes to creating so many enemies that we need to spend billions of dollars to protect ourselves, yes, I am an amateur. When it comes to paying farmers not to grow food while people starve in this country everyday, yes, I am an amateur. When it comes to creating a drug policy that makes crack and heroin cheaper than asthma and AIDS medicine, yes, I am an amateur.”
That speech has some truth to it and helps give the conclusion of the film a necessary jolt. The film never offers any ways to fix the problems it address, but then it is only a comedy after all.
There are quick gags in the film that also work quite well. Gilliam refuses to take money from a bottling company because they sell a product called Crib Malt Liquor complete with a baby bottle top. A smear ad has the White House exploding if Mays Gilliam is elected.
“Head of State” is by no means a great movie, but it is worth a look. Obama’s win was said to have changed everything. Is Obama an isolated occurrence, or will others be able to follow in his foot steps?
Hopefully decades from now new generations will be able to look at “Head of State” and be confused by the fact that the film was even made. “Head of State” could very well be a time capsule to a less progressive time for our nation.