Monday, January 19, 2009


The front page of the Sunday Arts section of the New York Times featured this article by Monohla Dargis and A.O. Scott called, "How the Movies Made a President". The writers claim that fifty years of edgy portrayals of black men in the movies have prepared the country for Obama's presidency. The piece is basically fluff; the writers go on to name black male types as they have appeared in film and television, many of whom have nothing at all to do with Barack Obama. The "black provocateur", for example, in the Richard Pryor tradition is really more Jesse Jackson than Barack. "Black Yoda"? Okay, Condi Rice, maybe, Colin Powell. But Yoda is a behind-the-scenes kind of fella, and there is nothing behind-the-scenes about a presidency. It is both oversimplified and overly inclusive to plot the cultural journey that led to Barack Obama's acceptance by the American majority using every single black man we have ever seen on the big screen as stepping stones.

But about halfway through the article, the writers land on something interesting when they get to The Cosby Show.

"The novelty of that series, at once revolutionary and profoundly conservative, lay in its insistence, week after week, that being black was another way of being normal.
The traditional composition of the Huxtable family, with the father as its benevolent, sometimes bumbling head, was part of the series’s strategy of decoupling blackness from social pathology. “The Cosby Show” did not deny the existence of serious problems in black America — not least the problem of absent fathers — but the presence of Cliff Huxtable, in his own home and yours, suggested that the problems were not intractable."
Could Barack Obama have been elected without the Cosby Show? Who knows? I think that Bill Cosby did a lot of work for Obama. We already have a cultural memory of feeling totally comfortable, feeling right at home, in the house of two highly educated, wealthy, successful black adults. Can't you just picture the Obamas in that Brooklyn Heights home we loved so well? Maybe its Christmas Eve, the girls, who are supposed to be asleep, are huddled on that great staircase. Michelle, looking fierce, is "mad" at Barack for sneaking a cigarette (his version of Cliff's weakness, the hoagie), but they're smiling, so in love, he gives her an early Christmas gift, tickets to see Harry Belafonte or an original issue of her favorite Ella Fitzgerald record, she forgives him his weaknesses. Then the doorbell rings, its Bill and Hillary from across the street, coming to bring some side-character Christmas cheer, it's Michelle's mother, who calls the girls down, everyone can see them anyway, and they all gather together on those couches that may as well have been from our own childhoods, we know them so well.

Roll credits.


Sylvie said...

It's amazing how New York-Centric you have become. I could never imagine the Obama's in Brooklyn Heights. I can imagine them in Hyde Park, the place they came from and where they will return. The early Christmas gift would be tickets to a Sox game or maybe a Bulls game. I see what you are trying to say but the Obama's are CHICAGOANS & they may put up with living in D.C. but never New York. :)
love ya, sylvie

Jordana said...

an interesting take... Cosby himself has said that in some ways he regretted making the Cosby show because it painted this unrealistic portrait that made people assume that's how all black people lived. Ever notice that all the (failed) future Cosby-starring sitcoms had his family living in middle class situations?