If you hang around Hollywood long enough and your star power shines bright enough, you'll be given an opportunity to direct your own feature film. The old joke is that most people who act do so in hopes of one day being able to direct. "Head of State" is a vanity project for its star, Chris Rock.
"Head of State" tells the story of Mays Gilliam, an alderman of a bad district in Washington, D.C. His name recognition rises because he saves an elderly citizen and her cat from a blast that was to level her home for a new mall.
The death of the presidential and vice presidential Democratic candidates gives Mays a chance to take over the top slot on the ticket. In the proverbial smoke-filled room, a senator with designs on the White House sets Mays up to be the sacrificial lamb.
The reason for the sacrifice is that the senator knows that no one will beat the current Republican nominee. He wants someone to step in and make points for the party so he can use the gains to run four years later. Mays naively accepts the opportunity and the movie rolls from there.
At first, Mays does what he's told. But he realizes he can say more than the scripted sound bites and patronizing dribble given by his handlers. At a stop in Chicago, Mays turns off his teleprompter and speaks his mind. He speaks truth for those forgotten in the electoral process. He repeats a phrase that becomes the slogan of the campaign: "That ain't right!" He says, "Do you work in a hotel as a maid that you could never stay in as a guest? That ain't right!"
The campaign builds steam and Mays develops a following. His campaign looks like it's straight out of the hood and focuses on urban themes. This makes the Republican challenger take notice. His slogan is "God bless America, and no one else!"
The Republican is a war hero, current vice president and Sharon Stone's cousin. The movie builds to election night, where the election comes down to the returns of one state.
What works in "Head of State" is Chris Rock's take on America. He asks some pointed, but pertinent questions about our country. In one speech, he talks about how most lower-class Americans have to work two jobs just to stay broke. Rock wonders about a drug policy that makes crack cheaper than asthma medicine.
He reminds me of Richard Pryor in "Brewster's Millions." Pryor runs for mayor of New York using the same kind of straight talk, but he tells people not to vote for him, but vote for none of the above.
But many of the movie's subplots don't work. They involve characters that are filler to the story and act to give the movie more narrative weight. An example is Kim, Mays' fiancée, who dumps him at the beginning of the movie. For the rest of the movie, she's simply a stalker who is always taken away by security.
Another example is Mitch, Mays' brother. Mitch becomes the vice presidential candidate because he is the only person that Mays can trust. Mitch is a bail bondsman from Chicago who has a bad habit of hitting people as a sign of greeting. Neither of these two adds much to the movie and does little to advance the story.
All in all, "Head of State" is funny. The story shows intelligence, and Chris Rock does well in holding a mirror up to our political process. There is real truth in what he observes about America and its government. What he says may make us uncomfortable, but we live in uncomfortable times and need someone to help us see ourselves, warts and all.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Burgaw Baptist Church in Burgaw, N.C.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug references
Director: Chris Rock
Writer: Chris Rock and Ali LeRoi
Cast: Mays Gilliam: Chris Rock; Mitch Gilliam: Bernie Mac; Lisa Clark: Tamala Jones;
Debra Lassiter: Lynn Whitfield; Martin Geller: Dylan Baker; Kim: Robin Givens; Brian Lewis: Nick Searcy; Nikki: Stephanie March.