I’ve been saving this one for a while, ever since Now-President Barack Obama was chosen as the Democratic candidate against Senator John McCain. It seemed appropriate to finally release this today. The Man is a 1972 drama directed by Joseph Sargent, based on the 1964 novel by bestselling author Irving Wallace. Both the novel and film examine the social and political consequences of a black man becoming the President of the United States.
Although Wallace himself started out as a screenwriter, the movie adaptation of his novel was penned by none other than Rod Sterling. Why Rod Sterling? Maybe because, at the time, the idea of an African-American President sounded like something out of The Twilight Zone.
The great James Earl Jones (pre-Star Wars, mind, just to note) plays Douglass Dillman, a high-ranking Senator who unexpectedly finds himself next in line for the Presidency after the President and the Speaker of the House are both killed at the same time in a freak ceiling collapse accident, while the Vice President is too elderly and sickly to assume the office. It’s quite sad that back then, this ridiculous and improbable scenario is considered more believable than a black man being elected by the American people. Who can blame them, really? Barack Obama was only 10 years old at the time.
President Dillman enters the White House followed by the contempt of the Cabinet and the American people (polls show his approval rating at 39%). The first part of this clip below, where Dillman enters the Oval Office for the first time, illustrates not only his apprehension, but of the awesome power of the job, as well.
To Rod Sterling’s credit, he tried to retool the story to accommodate the near-decade that had passed between the novel and the making of the film. The novel focuses much more on the racial prejudice of the 60's, portraying President Dillman as being too timid to make decisions on account of his skin color, not wishing to be seen as controversial in any way. His adversaries are racism and fellow backstabbing politicians on the move to discredit him, in addition to an actual assassination. Wallace, known for his mysteries and crime thrillers, wrote The Man as a page-turner with one foot planted on the pulp realm.
The movie, on the other hand, is more suited for the Black Panther era of its time, complete with a firecracker activist daughter who criticizes Dillman's less-than-militant commitment to his own people. Sterling shifts the spotlight to Dillman’s personal incompetence, how he allows himself to be controlled by the ambitious and bigoted Secretary of State. President Dillman also runs into a big problem for the way he handles a young black activist who is wanted for extradition by apartheid South Africa. This plotline dates the movie more than anything else, but is clearly what Sterling wanted to address the most.
The question is then raised as to whether or not Dillman would actually run in the upcoming election, whereas in the bleaker novel, the Senate gathers to impeach him unfairly.
Somewhat reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s treatment of the White House in The West Wing, Sterling’s screenplay—and his characterization of Douglass Dillman—is idealistic, compassionate and progressive, demanding more out of the Presidency than the usual Washington bureaucracy. The main difference, it must be said, is that Sterling doesn’t share Sorkin’s gifted ear for catchy dialogue. Like his Twilight Zone episodes, Sterling’s script is audacious for the ideas and inspiring in its moral complexity, but heavy-handed in its approach, rendering its players caricatures of their ideas.
The Man is a very flawed movie, but it’s worth looking back on in light of today’s historic moment, to see how one of the first pieces of fiction to depict a black President saw it all happen, compared to what actually transpired in these past few months. Unfortunately, it has never been released on VHS or DVD. I’m hoping there is a renewed interest for it because of Barack Obama so Paramount would finally get it out there. In the mean time, while the film was first released in theaters, it was originally made for television and had since aired numerous times, allowing bootleggers to create unofficial releases. You can buy a bootleg copy of this movie at this website, among others.
Fun fact: The director of this film, Joseph Sargent, would find awards and accolades later on with many historical projects, but his most notorious work to date was in 1987, when he directed the abominable Jaws: The Revenge. How he managed to retain a career after that, is a question for the ages.
Watch Out! is a feature on JustPressPlay where Arya Ponto showcases lesser-known, lesser-appreciated and often bizarre small films that are cool and deserve to get some attention. Venture here to see all previous entries.