How the movies shape a president’s legacy

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Source: BBC

By Tom Brook

Movies have influenced the way we remember US presidents from Lincoln to JFK. With two films depicting President Obama heading to cinemas in the coming months will this be the case with him also?

Most presidential film portraits need to fulfill certain expectations to get made: the presidential figure has to have charisma and gravitas. “Hollywood wants a real sense of great decisions being taken, great words being spoken,” says Iwan Morgan, professor of US studies at University College London.

Presenting Obama in a feature film poses particular challenges

In this respect, President Obama’s undeniable oratorial skills may stand him in good stead, but some scholars think presenting him in a feature film poses particular challenges.

“We’ve got to see whether there is a real story other than race,” says Toby Miller, emeritus professor of media and culture at the University of California. “There’s a story with Clinton and sex, there’s a story with Kennedy and tragedy, there’s a story with Nixon and scandal. What is the Obama story other than he’s African-American?”

(Credit: Pete Souza/The White House)

The raid that killed Osama Bin Laden has already resulted in a film, Zero Dark Thirty, but it did not feature President Obama (Credit: Pete Souza/The White House)

There’s some agreement that Obama’s two terms in the White House haven’t exactly been characterised by a series of jaw-dropping dramas that could create real box office heat.

“They’re not legislative achievements that can translate easily into a movie. What can you do with Obamacare? My suspicion is that the future movie of Obama would play very much on what he represents, more than what he actually did,” says Professor Morgan.

Portrait of a president

That’s perhaps why the Obama films in the pipeline are set in his younger years, before he became a policy maker, and touch on his formative experiences. Southside with You, out in the US in August, takes place on a single day in Chicago and dramatises the first date that Barack Obama had with the future First Lady. “I think he was just coming to the realisation that he could do something big in politics or in the world and I think he was just figuring it out. It’s not a very political film to me, it’s truly a love story,” says actor Parker Sawyers who plays the young Barack.

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