Political Film Society - Newsletter #165 - April 10, 2003

April 10, 2003


Head of StateColin Powell is undoubtedly the only African American today who can gain his party's nomination for president; he can credibly run a campaign about real problems with commonsense solutions, and he may have an excellent chance of winning. A Hollywood screenplay in which a Black might be elected president would be a welcome sequel to Jonathan Lynn's The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) in which Congressman Johnson (played by Eddie Murphy) might parlay his exposure of how Washington works into an effective campaign for President. Insofar as the recent film Head of State may be seen as that sequel, the result is extremely disappointing, carried to a level of vulgarity that defeats the possibility that the public will realize that there is an alternative to politics as usual. The plot hangs on a silly premise, namely, that one party's candidates for president and vice president die in separate airplanes that crash into each other only weeks before the 2004 presidential election. Senator Bill Arnot (played by James Rebhorn), who wants to run for president in 2008, persuades the leaders of the party to replace the presidential candidate with Mays Gilliam (played by Chris Rock), a quixotic Washington, DC, alderman who fights for the people, is gerrymandered ("redlined," according the film's jargon) out of his district, does not have enough money to continue renting an office or owning a car, and even has his bicycle destroyed by a passing bus. Arnot's aim is to boost his party's minority vote, which looms larger each year, so that he can win in four years on the coattails of an unsuccessful minority candidate.

At first, the naïve Gilliam does what he is told by his political consultants, garnering only about 10 percent support in the polls. In Chicago, however, he throws away a prepared speech, cites various injustices, and the audience echoes his campaign phrase "It Ain't Right!" Gilliam then picks up support, chooses his more articulate brother Mitch (played by Bernie Mac), who operates a bailbond business in Chicago, as his vice presidential running mate, dumps his campaign advisers (who later beg successfully to return to work for him, though on his terms), frightens Arnot about the prospect that his handpicked loser will become President Gilliam, endures a smear campaign, triumphs in a debate with the opposing candidate, and wins the election on the basis of the votes of California (where minorities comprise the majority). However, there is such a lack of clarity when Gilliam appears to present real issues that an opportunity is lost to raise the consciousness of nonvoters to throw out fat cat incumbents at the polls. Among the issues that could have been raised with some seriousness are the fact that too many Americans lack health care insurance and work two jobs to stay afloat, the money spent on the war on drugs goes down a rat hole, public education is underfinanced, foreign policy is unilateralist, and in general that poor people derive little benefit from government compared to the rich. With a more coherent screenplay, Eddie Murphy could have made Head of State into a major challenge of the political status quo. Writer-director Rock instead demonstrates his ignorance of political realities by settling for infrequent cheap laughs (not even cheap shots), stereotypic politicians and their advisers, and a promise that a Head of State II may feature a President Gilliam as an utter fool. As in the case of Bulworth (1998), directed by Warren Beatty, the flippant approach of Head of State to serious political issues buries the possibility that members of the public will realize what they must do to save American democracy from extinction. MH