The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, January 16, 2006

RIP President David Palmer

RIP David Palmer

There is a kind of grotesque and melancholy déjà vu to this note.  To write, on the day celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday of the death of the most powerful, intelligent and honorable black fictional character in the history of the most powerful entertainment medium in history makes my fingers shake a bit.

Last night, on the season opener of my favorite television series, “24” former president David Palmer was assassinated.  Yes, no life is sacred on that show—it is one of the things I love about it.  Yes, Dennis Haysbert, who for four seasons portrayed the complex and decent man who became the moral anchor for a show about extreme actions in extreme circumstances, is going on to star in another show, executive produced by David Mamet.  You have no idea how much I hope that show succeeds.

Yes, the producers obviously understood the impact that his death would have on viewers who appreciated a viral dark-skinned man presented as a natural leader embraced and cherished by his country.  Wayne Palmer, David’s brother, featured prominently in both hours of the season opener, and Curtis, a black CTU agent, was also on site for support. That’s the way you do such things, if you give a damn.

But still, it hurts.  It was supposed to hurt.  And it did.  I had guessed that this might happen, based on hints from the network, and oblique spoilers posted on the web.  But when my family and I sat around the television, lights dimmed, freshly popped popcorn in the bowl, awaiting the first new eagerly-anticipated episode in more than six months, and Palmer went down from a sniper’s bullet, it hit us hard.  Gasps of disbelief.  Prayers that the wound was not fatal.  Uneasy recognition of the similarity of circumstance with the death of Martin Luther King.  Unconscious on the part of the creative team?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  I almost cried.
Please remember how precious few hourlong dramas there have ever been on television with non-white leads.  “Deep Space Nine” was the first to succeed—that is, to last more than two seasons.  There have been countless comedies.  Humor allows us to release tension, and there is literally fantastic tension still stressing race relations in America.  So laughter is fine, but perception of non-whites as fully human beings with hopes and dreams and sexuality is still rare as bats with 20-20 vision.  And real leadership positions rarer still—note the number of black or Asian actors in supporting or second-billed roles as opposed to leads, and you will understand what America really, truly thinks in the privacy of their homes, in the dark of the movie theater.

David Palmer was not the lead on “24.”  But from the first moment he appeared, it struck me that I had never seen a black man so virile, so intelligent, so obviously H.N.I.C (ask a black friend) on television in my life.  I had literally spent my entire childhood without a single such image.  Cosby on “I Spy” came preciously close.  And it took a gifted comedian like Cosby to defuse the discomfort.  Greg Morris on “Mission: Impossible” came close, and you had better believe that the studio got hate mail by the bag.  “Negroes aren’t that intelligent…” was the most polite of the bunch.

So I mostly stay quiet, even though every single day, on television or in film, I see the images of white males as the lords of the universe held high, and apparently all females of all groups swoon for them, while black and Asian males, apparently, are either gay, already married, or uninterested in sex.  Fascinating revelation of American fantasy life, don’t you think?  And don’t blame the studios: when they make movies going against that stereotype, they almost always bomb.

And I hold it in.   And eagerly devour any crumbs thrown my way.  And David Palmer was the whole loaf.  And that particular dream, so long deferred, died last night.  And I write this on Martin Luther King’s birthday, and want to laugh, and cry.
I still love “24.”  I still love Hollywood.  I still love America.  But God, sometimes it really, really hurts to wonder if I’ll  ever be loved back.

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