It’s a bad time for films on Barack Obama | columns | Hindustan Times
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It’s a bad time for films on Barack Obama

Just about four months before he vacates the White House, Barack Obama appears to be making the transition to the big screen. That’s not surprising. He’s possibly the most celebrated US president of recent times. But Americans like their mega budget masala movies, so unless their presidents appear in films like those of JFK’s assassination, Watergate or Abraham Lincoln as a vampire slayer, they get voted down

columns Updated: Sep 30, 2016 15:18 IST
A scene from the movie Barry, with Devon Terrell playing Barack Obama
A scene from the movie Barry, with Devon Terrell playing Barack Obama(Reuters)

Karan Johar may not have had a film playing at the Toronto International Film Festival but he certainly made moves there at a special event. It may have been apt that the Bollywood director was at the venue. He is, after all, possibly the first filmmaker to have featured American President Barack Obama in a fiction film. That was My Name Is Khan, and Johar may have harboured hopes his luck would change in the global film market as he pushed an international version of that Shah Rukh Khan vehicle. It flickered briefly on screens in North America and then, deservedly, departed.

But he may well have pioneered featuring Obama in filmi fiction. Strangely enough, it took Americans a while to shove their president into a screenplay, even though a 2010 Indonesian movie, Obama Anak Menteng or Little Obama tracked his childhood in Jakarta, bringing to mind the madrassa madness that briefly gripped his 2008 campaign.

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Now, just about four months before he vacates the White House, he appears to be making the transition to the big screen. That’s not surprising. He’s possibly the most celebrated US president of recent times, mainly for the electoral history he created.

He’s also the most celebrity president of modern times. Not only does he appear on late night talk shows with a frequency that outpaces Justin Bieber’s meltdowns, he gets his youthful constituency and gets to it using media they consume — like chatting with YouTube sensations or being interviewed by Zack Galifianakis on Between Two Ferns.

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Given the contrast with the two contenders vying to succeed him, the majority of Americans (over 50%, according to Gallup) view him favourably.

So, cue the filmed tributes. There’s Southside With You, released last month, set in 1989 and about young Barack wooing Michelle Robinson. This week, Indian-American director Vikram Gandhi premiered his take on Obama, version 1981, at the Toronto International Film Festival, with his film Barry. Gandhi went to New York’s Columbia University as did the Obama of that time and this film. The director also lived next door to the building on 109th Street where Obama once roomed.

Read | Vikram Gandhi’s ‘Barry’ tells of Obama’s identity struggle during college days

Not that Gandhi is the first Indian-American to bring Obama to cinema. That credit goes to conservative thinker Dinesh D’Souza, with his part-documentary, part-fiction film Obama’s America, though he was not quite as complimentary.

Barry is an engaging effort. The producers actually cast an Australian actor, Devon Terrell, to play the young Obama, and he carries off the role as if he had been born with a Kenyan-Kansan-Indonesian-Hawaiian background. Barry takes to the court for some basketball and fellow hoopsters call him Invisible. That may underscore the personality portrayed, bland and often blah, and as he wrestles with an identity that lies between black and white, he appears grey. But the film’s light touch, limned with humour, makes it a pleaser.

Read | Major human-rights groups press Obama to pardon Edward Snowden

Like Southside, though, this movie will get the right noises from critics, sound good on a resume, perhaps snare a couple of awards, and snag a modest box office run. It’s not Gandhi’s fault, but these films will flicker and fade. America is at its most cynical ever on politics, and a biopic of a figure currently atop the Washington pyramid has scant crossover appeal. As you may have noticed during the 2016 US presidential cycle, America is divided, and political leanings make for one fault line. Candidates and voters alike seem to be giving up on each other. If Hillary Clinton just described Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, four years earlier Mitt Romney nattered about the “47%…who are dependent upon government”, who would never vote for him.

Read | On 9/11 anniversary, let’s ensure we don’t let others divide us: Obama

Also, Americans like their mega budget masala movies, so unless their presidents appear in films like those of JFK’s assassination, Watergate or Abraham Lincoln as a vampire slayer, they get voted down.

These films on Obama have appeared far too early for mass consumption; there’s still far too much rawness. In the polarised polity, they won’t attract much undivided attention. The Obama genre may be here, but it hasn’t quite arrived.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal