Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Head of State”

Dear Frank,

Because you’re a politically aware sort of person, you’re likely aware that the United States is dealing with some financial drama right now. You also might be aware that when our current president, Barack Obama, held a fundraiser to celebrate his 50th birthday last week, Fox News covered the event like so:

I don’t want to get too deep into politics today, Frank, but here’s the thing — I have a theory. There’s only one rational explanation for that headline, which is that the folks at Fox News have confused reality with the events of the political comedy Head of State, directed by and starring the very funny Chris Rock.

Head of State is an important film for one very specific reason — it is a historical remnant of an era when the concept “What if a black guy ran for President?” was a successful pitch for a comedy. For history’s sake, let’s get the timeline straight:

March 28, 2003: Head of State is released in theaters. It grosses $38 million at the box office (budgeted at $35 million, that makes it a very minor success).
July 27, 2004: Illinois State Senator Barack Obama delivers the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. It is a kick-ass speech that gets many wondering “holy shit, could this guy be the first black President FOR REALZ”?
November 4, 2008: Senator Barack Obama is elected as the first black President FOR REALZ.
August 2011: I find myself watching Head of State on HBO, and feel compelled to tell you what happens in it.

Head of State not only has a Greek chorus (in the form of rapper Nate Dogg) but voice-over from Chris Rock’s character, an alderman serving the “real” people of Washington D.C. — i.e., the black people. (The character has a name but he’s pretty much just Chris Rock, so let’s just keep things simple here.)

Chris is a decent guy/champion of the lower class who gets one big moment of heroism — helping save a lady and her cat from a building that’s about to be demolished. This gets him on the local news, which does not keep his car from being repossessed or his fiancée from leaving him (she’s a bitch, and shows up throughout the rest of the film trying to get him back, only to be tackled by security guards or hit by a car — I don’t know what lessons there are to be learned there).

Saving that cat does, however, get him noticed by the leaders of Unnamed Political Party, who need to find a new candidate for the upcoming election after the previous candidates died in plane crashes. (“Why did he have to use his cell phone on the plane?” is the pretty funny explanation for that.)

Refreshingly, there are no political conspiracies in this movie: The main UPP guy behind this plan just wants to find a minority candidate with no chance of winning in 2004 — that way, when he runs in 2008, everyone will remember the UPP as the minority-friendly party, which will be good because America will be minority-majority by then.

So Chris Rock gets picked up in a limo! And does not believe them when they tell him that he’s their presidential nominee! Because it makes no sense! (And, in one of the many moments of this film that are genuinely pretty funny, immediately imagines getting assassinated.) Dylan Baker and his bow tie manage to convince Chris Rock that this is legit, and then it’s off to the campaign trail!

This is the final magazine in a montage of covers -- Newsweek, etc, asking "Are we ready?" There are a lot of quick gags like this in the movie. I like 'em.

Frank, now that the movie’s premise has officially gotten under way, you’re probably not going to be shocked to hear that the bulk of the comedy comes from the hilarious culture clashes between Chris Rock and the uptight rich folk. One of his most uptight advisors is played by Lynn Whitfield, so the race lines aren’t strictly drawn, but when the premise of your movie is “Hahahahah OMG what if a black guy ran for president amiright?” it’s safe to assume that some generalizations about both black and white culture are going to be utilized.

For example, Chris Rock, DJing a fancy party full of white people, quotes the bard Rock Master Scott and his Dynamic Three: “The roof, the roof is on fire.” The white people, having never heard of this 1984 Billboard chart-topping track, panic. Head of State is sophisticated that way.

Eventually, Chris Rock decides that pretending to impersonate a bland politician just ain’t gonna work for him no more, and so he starts to stop wearing suits and start SPEAKING TRUTH TO THE PEOPLE. This goes well for him! I bet you’re shocked by that, Frank. Until, of course, he gets TOO real about violence in the schools on camera, he breaks up with his campaign advisors and the press isn’t thrilled about him anymore.



Dylan Baker (sans bow tie), comes back to help Chris Rock get his campaign back on track. There’s actually a pretty real moment here, when Dylan Baker comes back to tell Chris Rock that he can’t quit the campaign. “I’m not quitting,” he says. “I wish I could quit. You don’t know how lucky you got it. You just represent yourself. I represent my whole race.”

It is a heavy moment. Let’s lighten things up! Their first big idea for fixing things is to pick Bernie Mac (playing Chris Rock’s brother) as a running mate. Sure. Good plan. And rest in peace, Bernie Mac. He wears some EXTRAORDINARY suits in this movie.

I wish I could have gotten a good full-length shot of this suit. Because seriously. Love it.

Oh, and Lynn Whitfield comes back too — with natural hair now as opposed to a chemically relaxed Hillary bob. (Everyone should watch the documentary Good Hair, by the way, because you will LEARN SOME SHIT.) And Chris Rock, wearing a suit (but a FUBU suit) finally gets to debate his opponent! It’s like that episode of The West Wing, except the exact opposite, and it goes really well!

And so he wins the election! And makes out with this nice girl who he’s been trying to get with all movie! Hooray! America.

Yeah, I got bored of recapping details. Sorry, Frank. But to be fair, there is a lot of actually funny stuff in this movie — there are some sharp one-liners and cutaway gags, and no reporter or politician actually plays a moment straight. For example, Chris Rock’s opponent is “Vice-President for the last eight years, a war hero and Sharon Stone’s cousin.” It’s repeated every time he’s mentioned. Oh, and his catchphrase is “God bless America, and no place else.” This is comedy I respect. Also, Tracy Morgan shows up occasionally to sell stolen meat! He’s funny. This movie was not really painful to watch.

Okay, this part was a little silly. But hey, no one's perfect.

BUT, watching it is such a potent reminder of the fact that race relations haven’t gotten all that much better since this film was made. (Seriously, a “hip-hop BBQ”?!? SERIOUSLY?)

Because I am not a race relations expert or a political scholar, I don’t feel truly qualified to really compare the plot of Head of State with the reality of our current president. I am, however, a comedy writer, which makes me qualified to say the following: Hey, Fox News, next time you decide to cover an event, maybe make sure the teevee isn’t playing premium cable?


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on August 9, 2011, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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