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A Brief History of 60 Years of (Fictional) Female and Minority Presidents

Sela Ward isn't the first woman to be cast as the commander-in-chief, but her upcoming role in "Independence Day 2" is a sign we're slowly crawling toward more diversity in movies and television shows.
May 9, 2015, 2:16pm

Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer in '24'

This week, it was announced that actress Sela Ward had signed on to play the president of the US in Independence Day 2. The actress, who previously starred in Gone Girl and CSI:NY, will fill the presidential shoes of Bill Pullman from the original film, making her character the highest-profile film depiction of a female president ever. This seems like progress, and it is in a way, but the world of film has always been more willing than the real world to experiment with putting women and minorities in the Oval Office.

More than 60 years before Julia-Louis Dreyfus takes office in VEEP, the first woman president on the small or big screen was played by Ernestine Barrier in a crappy black-and-white sci-fi flick called Project Moonbase (1953). The presence of ladies in positions of authority was forward-thinking in a way, but as you might expect, the regressive gender politics of the 50s remain intact: The lead female scientist in this movie behaves like a child, and is even threatened with "a spanking" by her superior officer. When she encounters anything confusing or dangerous—such as needing to weed out a spy in their midst, or a series of buttons on the control panel—the scientist immediately defers to her male counterpart.


The next female president appears in the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President, in which Polly Bergen plays President Leslie McCloud. The premise of the film is, basically, "Ha ha wouldn't it be funny if a woman were president?" Really, the story centers on her husband—or the "first lady," as he's referred to on the movie poster and numerous times during the film. In the end, the president suddenly realizes she's pregnant, then resigns from her post to focus on her family.

Clip from 'Kisses for My President' (1964)

As for a black president, the first actor to take on the role was a seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1933's satirical short musical Rufus Jones for President. The satiric (read: racist as hell—the whole premise itself full of callous mockery) movie follows a young Rufus as he's elected president and proceeds to sing and dance in the White House. The world wouldn't get a serious look at a black president for another 39 years, in the form of the 1972 film The Man. The movie stars James Earl Jones as Douglass Dilman, a president pro tempore (third in line to be the commander-in-chief) who ends up running the country after the president dies and the vice president is too sick to hold office. The Man is all about the Dilman character dealing with the issues of the era—he's a moderate, and both liberals and conservatives around him want to make his race the main issue—and pushing back against those who are working to unseat him.


The film dealt with some of the same issues that a 1977 sketch from The Richard Pryor Show took on, though obviously Pryor cuts a different figure in the Oval Office than Jones:

As time went on, we began to see more and more depictions of black presidents. By the 90s, in fact, black actors could portray the commander-in-chief without the premise of the movie being WOW A BLACK PRESIDENT! You had Morgan Freeman as the oddly calm President Beck in Deep Impact (1998); Tommy Lister as the hulking President (of the galaxy) Lindbergh in The Fifth Element (1997); Chris Rock as presidential candidate-turned-President-Elect Mays Gilliam in Head of State (2003); and the wonderful Dennis Haysbert as unflappable President David Palmer on 24 (later, the forward-thinking show would feature Cherry Jones as President Allison Taylor). In fact, Haysbert told the Associated Press in 2008 that he thought his portrayal of President Palmer "may have helped open the eyes of the American people," helping pave the way to electing President Obama.

Whether or not that's true, people's eyes have been opening slowly, both onscreen and off. According to a list of all presidential roles in film and TV on Wikipedia, since President Obama's election in 2008, there have been approximately 48 films with a role for a fictional president. Out of those 48 films, 14 roles have been gone to women or people of color—roughly 29 percent. Compare this figure with the House of Representatives, which has 535 seats. Ninety-six House seats are currently held by people of color and 87 held by women, which works out to 28.5 percent. (Two of the representatives are women of color.) Which isn't exactly great, but at least it's no worse than reality, where, since we're counting, we're at 43 presidents who are white guys compared to only one who isn't.

As for a Jewish president, only the film Deterrence (1999), starring Kevin Pollak, deals directly with a president of Jewish descent as integral to the plot. And, as far as I can tell, there's never been a depiction of a Asian president or a president who is a woman of color. Furthermore, one of the only Latino presidents the world has seen is at the inauguration of President Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) at the end of The West Wing . (In the political thriller Olympus Has Fallen, which stars Morgan Freeman as acting president, producers cast Caucasian actor Phil Austin in the role of the Latino vice president).

Related: Watch President Barack Obama speak with VICE News

So why are we still so adverse to seeing women and underrepresented groups in the role of commander-in-chief? The problem, obviously, goes way beyond the casting of presidential roles: As shown in this amazing infographic, of the top 500 films from 2007 through 2012, only 30 percent of all speaking parts went to women. Maybe we'd have more diverse fictional presidents if fictional electorates weren't entirely made up of white guys.