Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ten films that embody Obama

I probably should have posted this yesterday, for inauguration day, or better yet, the day before, when Barack Obama was still president of the United States.

But the truth of the matter is, I didn't think of the idea until yesterday, so today it is.

And that also allowed me to watch the Obama first date movie Southside With You last night, a lovely little movie that was the perfect antidote to a day that began with Donald Trump becoming president.

In trying to think of a way to honor the Obama era -- an important time for me, which saw the purchase of my first house, the birth of both my children, and my actual (temporary) departure from the U.S. -- I knew there were a couple ways to go about it. I could scour the internet to talk about movies Obama liked, though the internet has already done that story and I'd likely just be stealing. I could tell you about my own favorite movies from that era, though that's material I've already covered elsewhere in year-end posts. I could even just post a couple dozen awesome photos of the guy, though this site gives you a hundred great ones -- and I really enjoyed flipping through them on Friday at work, to honor his last day in office.

So instead, I thought I'd talk about the movies that came out during Obama's administration that most honored his philosophies as a human being and a president. The following ten films are films I've seen that were released between 2009 and 2016 (haven't seen any 2017 releases yet, sorry), and together, they give a portrait of a great man whose greatness will likely only be further unveiled to us the farther away he gets from the Oval Office ... especially in contrast to the man succeeding him.

They didn't come as easily as I thought they might. The characteristics that make a great man don't necessarily make a great movie. There's an earnestness about Obama that would feel like a burden to a film if applied to that film. This is not to say Obama is unfailingly earnest -- I love his sense of humor. But he's earnest enough that if you're trying to replicate the qualities that make him great in a movie, you might fail spectacularly.

So while many of these are probably not perfect fits, they're the best I could come up with in the amount of time I allotted myself. I hope you'll at least see why I chose the movies I chose, even if only because I plan to explain that logic as well.


Agora (2009, Alejandro Amenabar) - Amenabar's film about a female mathematician and philosopher (Rachel Weisz) in fourth century Roman-controlled Egypt, who becomes persecuted for her unwillingness to convert to Christianity, does not have literal applications to Obama. What made me think of it was the trailblazing spirit she shares with Obama, a man who claims more of a kinship with Christianity than he probably actually feels for the purposes of political expediency. (In Southside With You when he talks about his religious associations, he says he's still discovering himself.) Hyapatia would never compromise those principles in the way that you might argue Obama has, but then again, she was killed rather than living on to change the system from within. I think of Obama as a pragmatic iconoclast, one whose belief in his principles causes him to devise methods of implementing them that are so subtle, it's almost like he's made the person he's trying to convince think that they came up with the idea themselves. You could call that sneaky; I call it brilliant. (Because I agree with the things he's trying to do, I suppose.) So he takes inspiration from a character like Hyapatia but then deviates from her in ways that are more useful for the world he's trying to change.

The Armor of Light (2015, Abigail Disney) - One of the most sadly recurring images of Obama's administration was him wiping away tears (real tears) as a he struggled with the aftermath of an incident like the Sandy Hook shooting. These were eight years when America's failure to adopt common-sense gun laws were repeatedly in the spotlight, a number of times that would be comical if it weren't so tragic. Abigail Disney's documentary (my favorite contribution to the 2016 Human Rights Arts & Film Festival) looks at an evangelical minister who decides his pro-life beliefs are inconsistent with a support of gun rights, and works tirelessly to change the minds of fellow conservatives on the topic. (It splits its time with the mother of a teenager who was shot for playing his music too loud, whose tear-soaked testimony is gutting.) The kind of campaign mounted by the Rev. Rob Schenck is reminiscent of one of Obama's impossible causes, which he works steadfastly toward despite the lack of likelihood of its success. And with the right drive, sometimes it does actually work, like the Affordable Care Act. Obama won't have to wipe away any more tears as a president commenting on an unnecessary loss of life, but let's hope battles like gun control continue on despite the improbability of their success.

A Better Life (2011, Chris Weitz) - The DREAM act was not a piece of legislation that originated with Obama -- it was first introduced in 2001 -- but it was something he championed wholeheartedly. It's also one of the ideas most likely to go down in flames under Trump, who still wants to build that wall along our southern border. The need for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is documented wonderfully in Weitz' 2011 film, which is a bit like an American companion piece to The Bicycle Thief. An undocumented gardener (Demian Bichir) and his son search Los Angeles for his stolen pickup truck, the key to his ongoing livelihood, with destitution and deportation both looming as consequences of not succeeding. There have been other lesser films made on this topic during this time, and some that I like quite well, but I chose this one because it contains the type of optimism that describes Obama, avoiding the excessive earnestness that I discussed in the opening. Its protagonist is a dogged pursuer of the dream Obama wanted to bring all illegal immigrants, and the movie's title is what Obama wanted to give them.

42 (2013, Brian Helgeland) - The reasons for including this pick are so on-the-nose that it almost makes me hesitate to include it. Obama broke the color barrier in the U.S. presidency just as Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. But Helgeland's film beautifully captures other things Obama shares in common with one of baseball's all-time greats, namely, a consistently successful tendency to greet every insult thrown his way with an impassive form of stolidity. This is not to say either man was without a temper. 42 shows scenes where Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) privately agonizes and unleashes impotent anger at the society he lives in and the threats to his family. But both Obama and Robinson believed that you could not show your frustration to those attacking you, because then they win. Also both believed in their roles as representatives of something bigger, both a race of people and a dignity that all people of any color should aspire to.

Good Hair (2009, Jeff Stilson) - A documentary in which Chris Rock interviews various African-American women about their hair -- proudly natural, proudly artificial, or not-so-proudly of either -- might seem like a strange choice here. But one of the things I've always loved about Obama is his occasional frankness about race, particularly as it applies to himself and his family. Upon adopting a mixed breed dog, for example, he said the dog was a mutt, just like him. More specifically related to hair, though, is the fact that Obama lives in a family of three beautiful women, whom he loves and encourages in equal measure. Although Good Hair is meant to be funny and often is, underlying it is a serious topic that is also covered in the children's book Nappy Hair -- that society has taught women of color to be ashamed of the way their hair behaves, and to take measures to make it better resemble the hair they see in fashion magazines. Good Hair grapples with that issue and ultimately comes out in a very women-positive and black-positive manner. Obama teaches his children (and doesn't need to teach his wife, but would if he needed to) to love themselves, and not to aspire to some unrealistic ideal that's an illusion and fundamentally hurtful.

Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter) - I might have the most trouble explaining why I picked Inside Out. It's my favorite movie on the list, having topped my year-end rankings last year, and that counts for something in a list that is also about me and the movies I love. (For example, there may be some films that fit the criteria a bit better but I haven't included them just because I don't like them as much.) But if trying to mount a defense for the pick, I might tell you that Obama's optimism and his ability to use grief productively are the things that made me see Inside Out as a movie that represents him. One of Obama's strongest moments as president was when he gave us an example of how to deal with the news that Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton. It might not have seemed like a standout moment because we were only concentrating on our own sadness, but Obama helped many of us immeasurably with his ability to give perspective and remain presidential despite his own evident grief. Obama is defined by his ability to keep the non-happy emotions in the spectrum in balance, and to use them productively in pursuit of a more perfect self. It's an ability worth celebrating.

Life Itself (2014, Steve James) - Another possibly unusual choice that I picked for a number of very specific reasons. For one, it seemed good to get a Chicago movie in there (and I strongly considered another Chicago-set Steve James film from this period, The Interrupters). But the reason I went with Life Itself -- a biography of another man -- was because of the way Roger Ebert describes the function of movies in his life, a function he believes it has for all of us. "We are all born with a certain package," says Roger in a bit of audio recorded from earlier in his life. "We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck in that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." Barack Obama was, and still is, a machine that generates empathy, in human form.

Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg) - Perhaps the most slam dunk pick I had here. One of the first things Barack Obama did after winning a tough Democratic primary from Hillary Clinton was to name her his secretary of state, one of the most important positions in his cabinet. It surprised some, as it was assumed that Obama and Clinton hated each other -- and maybe they did. But Obama took his lead from Abraham Lincoln, who surrounded himself with trusted advisors who saw things differently than he did, in order to challenge his perceptions and bring about a more thoroughly reasoned ultimate outcome. Doris Kearns Goodwin called it a "team of rivals," and Spielberg's film, starring an astonishingly good Daniel Day-Lewis, dramatizes Lincoln's philosophy expertly. Other presidents have given lip service to reaching across the aisle -- Obama actually practiced it. And of course, Clinton is on the same side of the aisle as he is. But (as just one example) Obama also appointed James Comey, a Republican, as the head of the FBI. It's a decision that may have cost Clinton her own bid to be president, but that's not the lesson we should take from that. The lesson we should take is that there are risks involved with doing what you think is the best thing for the country, but that doesn't mean you should ever stop doing it.

Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs) - This could be the most unusual pick on this list for a number of reasons. For one, it's my least favorite of the films I've chosen. Secondly, it's about male strippers. But what made me persist in thinking about it was the way others who talked about it at the time, before I even saw it, made me think about what it was doing. Among other things, Magic Mike XXL was praised for being casually post-racial. The film featured a true cross-section of people of different races without making a fuss about that fact. It just existed in a world in which race, at least theoretically, didn't matter, or was not even worth discussing. The fact that we noticed it, and are discussing it, means we're not really there yet. But the movie existed as a kind of utopia for those purposes, and even though there are other things about it that I don't totally love, this is one I do. Barack Obama sought to give us a world that was post race. He didn't succeed, of course -- and one could argue, pretty effectively, that racial tensions became increasingly worse during his administration, creating the possible conditions for the election of Donald Trump. But Obama has always been an advocate of gradual change -- as a perfect encapsulation of his political philosophy, in Southside With You he discusses the "building blocks" for change in his capacity as a community organizer. Obama has put in the building blocks for us to be post racial, and I hope we'll get there in his lifetime.

The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott) - At the start of this piece, I talked about the difficulty of finding a film that expresses Obama's earnest optimism without being hokey. The Martian is probably as close to that as you can get. It's a film about a solo man up against unthinkable odds, who must devise solution after solution to stay alive while a team works doggedly and selflessly to help him attain that outcome. The Martian is pure fantasy, of course -- it has plenty of good science underpinning it, but it's an optimism even greater than what Obama brings to the table to think that Mark Watney (Matt Damon) would actually survive his marooning on Mars. But it's that kind of insane positivity that achieves impossible outcomes, and Barack Obama made that kind of insane positivity his calling card. He wanted to achieve the impossible, and sometimes, he actually did. More often than not he didn't, but that's because he's a human being who lives in our real world. But he sought an America in which people would work together selflessly to achieve the greater good, and his vision for that type of America remains untarnished, even in the wake of its inevitable and frequent failure. "The greater good" may be an unusual ideal to be invoking here, as The Martian, on the surface of it, seems to advocate the opposite -- that sometimes, unimaginable resources should be committed to the saving of just one life. But it's that commitment and moral determination that is the greater good. In the messy world of politics, social policy and economic initiative, we can never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, it's about saving each individual person, one at a time.

I don't have high hopes for the Trump administration. Every time he gives us a little something to be encouraged about, he snatches it right back. In four or (my God, I hope not) eight years, I don't expect to be sitting here writing an ode to a successful presidency embodied by ten hopeful films.

But Barack Obama is the type of person who consistently reminds us to stay positive, to believe we have the power to change the world, and to give even sinister characters the benefit of the doubt.

Barack Obama hoped for great things for this country, and will continue to do so.

As not only a tribute to him, but a symbol of the way he changed me, I will do so as well.

Thank you, my great president. You are a hero to me, and a shining example of the way we want the world to perceive America.

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