Who can be president? According to the movies, it’s still White men

In the world of movies, even your most outlandish ideas can come to fruition. Sharknados? Check. Alien invasions? Check. An American president who isn’t White or male? Uh, mark that one off as a maybe.

It’s been 12 years since Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first Black president and four years since Hillary Clinton became the first major party female candidate, but movie depictions of fictional commanders in chief are still overwhelmingly White men.

“We are often made to believe that whiteness is not only just the default, but also preferable,” said Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, an assistant professor of media studies at Wake Forest University and a Black pop culture scholar. “We see that in both real life and fiction.”

Real life speaks for itself: America has had 45 presidents so far, and all except Obama have been White men. But what about fiction?

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Obama’s election did seem to cause a slight bump in Black presidents in movies — six of the total 13 Black characters were after 2008. However, in comparison, there were still 24 White presidents from 2009 to 2019. George Lopez and Andy García played the only two Hispanic presidents, and the only Asian actor who has played a president is Ben Kingsley, who has an Indian father.

Movie depictions of fictional presidents over time

Black characters increased after 2008, but were still outpaced by White characters.

Cunningham also points out that even when Black presidents are featured in stories, they are often shown one dimensionally compared to their White counterparts.

“The vast majority of films that feature African American presidents are disaster narratives. The president himself is not necessarily to blame for the disaster, but it just so happens that he is in office when it’s all unfolding,” Cunningham said. Comparatively, White presidents are usually more fleshed out. “He’s mostly someone with whom you are meant to identify and to regard highly. There’s just more diversity in the types of White presidents you see in film.

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James Earl Jones

“The Man” (1972)

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Morgan Freeman

“Deep Impact” (1998)

Female presidents also tend to suffer from gendered tropes in movies, though there has been some change over the years from the few examples present.

For example, one of the earliest female presidents, Polly Bergen as Leslie McCloud in “Kisses for my President” (1964), steps down from her position after becoming pregnant. This ending is framed as a happy one for McCloud and her husband, who disliked how the presidency distracted from their family.

On the other hand, the most recent female president was Charlize Theron as Charlotte Fields in “Long Shot” (2019), which focused on Fields’s run for presidency. Though also a romantic comedy, this movie ends with Fields becoming president and her male love interest standing by her side in support.

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Polly Bergen

“Kisses for My President” (1964)

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Charlize Theron

“Long Shot” (2019)

Stats like these aren’t particularly surprising, however, given the continuing issues of diversity and representation in Hollywood. According to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s analysis of the top 100 movies of 2018, people of color make up only 36.3 percent of roles on screen, and women make up 33.1 percent. But even against those numbers, presidential roles still stand out as particularly lacking: Only 10.8 percent of the movie presidents we examined were not White, and only 6 percent were women.

As with presidents, a majority of films roles are still held by White men

Data based on the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s research of 1,300 movies from 2007-2019.

This is all despite the fact that movies led by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and women can and do make money at the box office. Just take a look at massive financial and critical successes like “Black Panther,” “Get Out,” “Wonder Woman” or “Parasite.” Adjusted for inflation, “Black Panther” has a lifetime gross of $698,123,039 and “Wonder Woman” earned $421,879,966. Meanwhile, both “Get Out” and “Parasite” made headlines at the Oscars — Jordan Peele became the first Black individual to win Best Original Screenplay for “Get Out,” while “Parasite” was the first non-English language film to win Best Picture.

Movie studios might worry about viability in overseas markets, like China, and Cunningham does agree that certain movies might not play well in foreign countries. But “it doesn’t mean that people don’t want to see diversity on the screen.” He points specifically to diverse franchises like the “Fast and Furious,” which have done exceptionally well globally.

Minorities often buy more tickets relative to their population

2019 population and ticket buyers broken down by race.

As the 2020 presidential election draws closer, it’s hard not to see movies as a proxy for how Americans think.

“We do have to distinguish between what White content creators do with the Black president’s image and what Black content creators do with it,” Cunningham said. “But that being said, if you look at the overarching history of imaginings of a black president … I do think that they’re reflective of a fear of change or a fear of a loss of white power in America.”

These issues are especially salient in the wake of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden choosing Sen. Kamala D. Harris as his running mate. It was a historic moment — Harris is the first women of color to accept a major party nomination for vice president — but also a chance to be reminded that women of color remain vastly underrepresented in government.

Will Harris’s nomination affect depictions of vice presidents on screen? Who knows. But we do know one thing: The real-life president this year will be a White man.

Explore the full list of fictional presidents below

Note: This table includes sequels and therefore multiple instances of the same character.

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About this story

Data for fictional presidents is based on reporter research from IMDb. Chart on percentages of film roles by race and gender based on data from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 2019 report, “Inequality in 1,300 popular films.” Chart on movie ticket buyers based on the Motion Picture Association’s 2019 “Theme Report.”

Shelly Tan is a graphics reporter and illustrator specializing in pop culture. She designs and develops interactive graphics.