We need a moratorium on movies about Obama
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