In many ways, Barack Obama’s election in 2008 brought to fruition ideals and impulses we’d been nurturing for decades, finally letting us see in real life what we’d been imagining symbolically for so long, whether it was Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact” or Dennis Haysbert on “24.” It took only a few years for Obama to emerge as a shadowy presence in mainstream movies, whether in the climactic scene of Lee Daniels’s White House drama, “The Butler,” or as the unseen arbiter of targeted killings and drone strikes in “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Good Kill” and this year’s “Eye on the Sky.”
Those oblique depictions will give way to more literal ones soon, when the cinematic mythmaking begins in earnest: Already, Will Smith has reportedly begun talks with Obama about playing him in a biopic. In September, the independent production “Barry,” about the president’s college years at Columbia University, will make its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Beating both of those to the punch was “Southside With You,” about Obama’s first date with his future wife, Michelle.
For someone whose motto is “No drama Obama,” the president’s personal story and political rise have proven to be exceptionally dramatic, almost inherently cinematic: the challenging childhood as the biracial son of a single mother; the “lost” years as an unfocused young adult; the swift, self-assured ascendancy from community organizer to charismatic politician to president of the United States.
We all secretly feel like our lives feel like a movie. But Barack Obama’s actually looks like one, from its narrative sweep and aspirational ambitions to its impossibly stylish, camera-ready optics. That’s the unstated subtext of “Southside With You,” which Richard Tanne was inspired to write when he watched Barack and Michelle Obama on the campaign trail in 2008. “I was just really taken with them as a couple,” the filmmaker explained during a visit to Washington in early August. “The way they look at each other, the way they flirt with each other — it felt authentic, it felt vibrant and a little sexy.”
Tanne could be speaking for any number of Americans who, regardless of partisan predisposition, have been impressed, even mesmerized, by the sheer iconography of the Obama presidency. It’s impossible to deny the symbolic power, not just of the first black president, but the first black family to live in the White House — which they have occupied with the same grace and shrewdness as they’ve performed their public roles. Like Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before them, the Obamas came to their roles with the innate understanding that images are a way of claiming social space, that representation isn’t a function of checking boxes (or even checking your privilege), but of psychic self-care and basic cultural competence.
That same understanding informed their advocacy of the 2012 indie sensation “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” featuring an indomitable breakout performance by Quvenzhané Wallis, as well as Michelle Obama’s appearance on the Oscars telecast the following year. “Through engagement in the arts, our children learn to open their imaginations, to dream just a little bigger and to strive every day to reach those dreams,” she said in her videorecorded address. “And I want to thank all of you here tonight for being part of that vitally important work.”
It went without saying that Mrs. Obama herself and her husband have been avatars of that same vital work, as the country’s most visible embodiments of inclusivity and a “majority-minority” future. With every Christmas card and video clip from the White House lawn, it seemed, we were being given bracing evidence of our pluralistic collective identity. “This,” the family photo ops seemed to say, “is what America looks like.”
Cause and effect are unquantifiable, but there’s no question that the Obama presidency has coincided with renewed awareness of representation in Hollywood, whether in the form of #OscarsSoWhite or federal investigations into gender inequality behind the camera. In defiance of Hollywood intransigence, the past several years have witnessed the flourishing of writers, directors and actors of color. Whether because of changing demographics, collective hunger or coincidence, the era of Barack Obama will always be linked with the rise of Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Coogler and Kenya Barris, Dee Rees and Salim and Mara Brock Akil. “Selma” and “Scandal.” “Fruitvale Station” and “Black-ish.” “Pariah” and “Being Mary Jane” and “Dear White People” and “Jane the Virgin” and “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Lemonade”: Something has changed, a shift in how we value visibility and inclusion that feels both seismic and natural, utterly of this moment and long overdue. White-dude culture as dominant culture is no longer the default equation, at least not without fierce argument or, even better, scathing satirical ridicule.
In the midst of that change, it’s been eerie but not surprising when movies dovetailed with our most unresolved racial legacies, such as when Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, arrived in theaters just as the murder of Trayvon Martin was going to trial, or when “Selma,” DuVernay’s drama about the civil rights movement, opened on the heels of national outrage at the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, or when “Straight Outta Compton” opened a few months after Freddie Gray died after his arrest in Baltimore. Movies can reflect and amplify social change, but, more often, they’re notoriously lagging indicators. No sooner had Steve McQueen’s drama “12 Years a Slave” made history as the first black-led film to win a best picture Oscar than filmmakers and actors of color were shut out of the most visible Academy Awards nominations, prompting activist April Reign to create the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. What began as an outraged Twitter conversation eventually shamed the Academy into recruiting the most inclusive group of members in its history.
The paucity of award-worthy roles for actors of color would have come in for criticism regardless of who happened to be president at the time. But Hollywood’s addiction to normative whiteness looks particularly pathetic compared with the visual and symbolic narrative that we’ve all watched unspool over the Obama presidency. After decades of Hollywood erasing, distorting and degrading black bodies in the name of entertainment and self-serving uplift, the lens has finally widened with a new sense of urgency and agency.
Not coincidentally, most of the filmmakers who came into their own during the Obama years have done so largely outside the studio system. As their unofficial den mother, DuVernay has long urged her colleagues to cultivate their own creative vision and professional autonomy, rather than wait for permission from the calcified powers that be.
Clearly, she’s on to something: In addition to creating a series for the Oprah Winfrey Network featuring an impressive lineup of female directors (mostly women of color), DuVernay just signed on to direct “A Wrinkle in Time” for Disney, making her the first African American female director to helm a movie with a $100 million budget.
Meanwhile, writer-director Barry Jenkins, whose debut feature “Medicine for Melancholy” came out the year Obama was elected, is already earning awards chatter with “Moonlight,” his long-awaited follow-up. Octavia Spencer, who burst into mass consciousness playing a maid in “The Help,” is playing a mathematician in “Hidden Figures.” Five years after the long-forgotten outcry that greeted Idris Elba’s appearance in the Marvel spinoff “Thor,” Coogler is directing “Black Panther” within the same mythic universe — which, in classic two-steps-back fashion, opened itself to charges of insensitivity when Tilda Swinton was cast in the role of an Asian character in “Doctor Strange.”
Change is pendular, slow, often self-contradicting. Still, the images that have defined us can no longer be credibly monochromatic, or monolithic. The symbolic space that’s been opened over the past eight years won’t be abandoned once the Obamas depart from the White House. They might be leaving the frame, but this movie is far from over.
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