We need a mora­to­rium on movies about Obama

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Alyssa Rosen­berg

The en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try gives the go-ahead to a lot of frus­trat­ing projects, but rarely has my head de­scended to my desk as rapidly as when I learned that in ad­di­tion to the two Barack Obama biopics that were re­leased be­fore he left of­fice, we’re now go­ing to get a work­place com­edy set in the Obama White House.

It’s not merely that the rush to make Obama, or even Obama-ad­ja­cent, projects re­in­forces the per­cep­tion that the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try is in thrall to the 44th pres­i­dent. In­stead, it’s that so far, sto­ries about Obama or his ad­min­is­tra­tion have lacked the req­ui­site dis­tance to be any­where close to de­cent as movies.

The chaos and un­hap­pi­ness of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to date may make it ir­re­sistible for Hol­ly­wood to cash in with Obama projects. But for the sake of the in­dus­try’s re­main­ing in­tel­lec­tual cred­i­bil­ity, and for the qual­ity of the sto­ry­telling in­volved, Hol­ly­wood should im­pose a vol­un­tary Barack Obama mora­to­rium un­til 2027, if not longer.

The two loosely bi­o­graph­i­cal projects about Obama that have al­ready been re­leased both list un­der a sense of their own his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance.

“South­side With You,” Richard Tanne’s dread­ful 2016 at­tempt to turn Obama’s (Parker Sawyers) first date with Michelle Robin­son (Tika Sumpter) into a ro­man­tic com­edy, had prob­lems be­yond pol­i­tics. Sawyers and Sumpter had no chem­istry, and in the movie, Obama’s per­sis­tence — es­pe­cially in pres­sur­ing Robin­son to re­veal to the part­ners at her law firm that they are dat­ing — came across as creepy rather than charm­ing.

But the movie was par­tic­u­larly bur­dened by its need to show Robin­son fall­ing not just for Obama, but also for his vo­ca­tion. The scenes of him speak­ing at a pre­dom­i­nantly African-Amer­i­can church, where the women in the con­gre­ga­tion go on at great length about what a catch he is, were just ex­haust­ing. Any movie with a char­ac­ter named “Barack Obama” is go­ing to make the au­di­ence com­pare that fic­tional per­son to the ac­tual pres­i­dent. “South­side With You” needed to wrap up Obama’s en­tire life in a tidy pack­age, pre­sent­ing his as­cent and mar­riage as part of a neat, pre­de­ter­mined tra­jec­tory, rather than giv­ing him space to breathe as ei­ther a char­ac­ter or a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure.

Vikram Gandhi’s “Barry,” which ar­rived on Net­flix last year, is a bet­ter, looser movie. Gandhi cares less about mak­ing sure that Devon Ter­rell, who plays Obama as a 1981 trans­fer stu­dent to Columbia, does a note-per­fect im­per­son­ation of Obama, and more about show­ing him wan­der­ing around New York, buy­ing books from street stands, ar­gu­ing with Black He­brew Is­raelites and laugh­ing at Ed Koch.

The dra­matic arc of “Barry” is its ti­tle char­ac­ter’s ex­plo­ration of his iden­tity, with his re­la­tion­ship with fel­low Columbia un­der­grad Char­lotte (Anya Tay­lor-Joy) and the si­lence of his fa­ther, who dies in the movie’s third act, as the pri­mary driv­ers of that quest. If this were a story about an oth­er­wise anony­mous col­lege stu­dent, “Barry” might float along just fine, though even by that mea­sure, the scene of Barry and Char­lotte’s breakup at her sis­ter’s wed­ding, scored to “I Shall Be Re­leased,” would be a trav­esty. But it’s not and he’s not, so ev­ery de­bate he has in class about moral au­thor­ity and gov­er­nance, ev­ery ar­gu­ment he has with Char­lotte about the fried chicken at Sylvia’s, and ev­ery time his mother (Ash­ley Judd) refers to her fem­i­nism lands like a heavy punc­tu­a­tion mark.

A movie about the fight to im­prove the New York sub­way sys­tem, or the move­ment to get univer­si­ties to di­vest from South Africa — both causes that en­gaged Obama dur­ing his col­lege years — with Obama as the main char­ac­ter might have found a way out from un­der the in­evitable weight of who Obama be­came. But nei­ther of those movies would have got­ten green­lighted quite so quickly, nor snapped up so ag­gres­sively.

Maybe this new project, “From the Cor­ner of the Oval,” based on a forth­com­ing me­moir by Beck Dorey-Stein, who worked as a stenog­ra­pher in the Obama White House, will shift the frame­work enough to avoid the trap that “South­side With You” and “Barry” fell into. The main char­ac­ter ap­par­ently “stum­bles into an elite world and finds her­self nav­i­gat­ing a se­ries of mis­ad­ven­tures in life and love,” rather than the pres­i­dent him­self.

But treat­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion as an op­por­tu­nity for self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion is just an­other step in the forg­ing of a nou­veauCamelot myth for an­other gen­er­a­tion de­fined in part by a youth­ful pres­i­dent. If Hol­ly­wood is go­ing to par­tic­i­pate in that process, it should at least take the time and dis­tance to make sure the myth­mak­ing is also good moviemak­ing.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers star as Michelle and Barack Obama in “South­side With You.” Matt Din­er­stein, Mi­ra­max-Road­side At­trac­tions

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