Barack Obama isn’t even out of office yet, and Hollywood already is putting a soft, rosy glow on his life’s story. Not one but two films this year have worked to paint the Obama legacy with a light and admiring stroke. One of those movies, “Barry,” premieres on Netflix Friday.
“Barry” follows the life of a young Barack Obama while he attends Columbia University in 1981. The trailer suggests a glowing look at the complicated young man who will one day become president. It lands only four months after another glowing independent film about the president dropped: “Southside with You.”
The films feel more like thank-you letters to the soon-to-be-former president than actual stories.
When George W. Bush was in office, there were high-profile films released about him, too. One was called “Death of a President,” a film-festival darling that examined the hypothetical assassination of the president. Can you imagine the uproar if such a film were released while Obama was still in office?
There was also Oliver Stone’s “W.” The Josh Brolin-starring movie was rushed into release before George W. Bush left office. It made the case for the president as a knucklehead, someone with little or no knowledge of real policy — he was a man-child with daddy issues.
Of course, actual history doesn’t matter to the filmmakers.
Both movies, along with a slew of other protest films, worked to solidify a certain legacy for Bush in the minds of many. Whether people like or agree with the man or not, it is beyond striking to see the difference in work — now versus then. How is it that one man gets a film demonizing his administration and blatantly calling him stupid — plus an assassination film to boot — while the other gets two high-profile indie movies that seek to rewrite his life as a profound poem that Americans should learn from?
“Southside with You” followed the first date of Barack and Michelle Obama — and the film earned a 92-percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Most critics accepted the love letter of a movie at face value. Others were able to see through the political play. The New York Post’s Kyle Smith wrote in his review that the film “reflects badly on President Obama. It’s a movie about the Obama that might have been — wise, patient, and mollifying. This is Obama the bridge builder, not the flamethrower he turned out to be.”
Of course, actual history didn’t or doesn’t matter to the filmmakers. They are in overdrive to rewrite the Obama we have been getting to know for the past eight years — before Donald J. Trump takes office in January.
“Before he created change, before he made us believe we can, he was Barry,” reads the screen in one of the trailers to “Barry,” which has an 86-percent Rotten Tomatoes rating after a festival screening earlier in the year. The film paired with the already released “Southside with You” suggests a creepy, pro-government Hollywood — like Fidel Castro-approved films about himself.
We know where the majority of Hollywood stands. Weekly comments and campaign stumping sent a clear message. However, the large discrepancy in the way artists have used art to judge one president while blatantly building a false narrative around another is alarming. Filmmakers have no teeth when it comes to Obama. Where are the films about the broken promises, the disastrous health care laws, the wars, the veterans health care fails, and more? Are progressives so in love with the idea of Obama that the rest of the country really needs to see indie love letters to his college days and his first date?
Looking at the major releases that were used to culturally define the last two presidencies and their political motivations, we can already guess at the kinds of films that will be released while Trump is in office — whether he does a good job or not.