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?”

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. 

The other forthcoming Obama film, Barry, is set in New York in 1981 and it portrays the president when he was a college student. But little else is known about the movie other than the young Obama is said to have a significant encounter with a young woman.

These first two Obama movies, although eagerly awaited, may do little to shape his legacy because they’re not big budget star-laden studio vehicles with a massive reach.

“Those films can have an impact, but you have to think how many people are going to see them. People who don’t like Obama are not going to see flattering biopics about Michelle and Barack’s first date or his time in New York,” says Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.

Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in almost 40 films

A more significant effect may come from a bigger-budgeted film that chooses to depict the president. Hollywood studios, with their appetite for real-life stories still strong, will certainly be on the lookout for any Obama narratives. Obama’s own writings may be a guide. “His presidential memoirs will help Hollywood look for ways to portray him.” Beyond Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, “The decision to eliminate Bin Laden could well become a Hollywood movie down the years,” says Professor Morgan.

Obama certainly has a long way to go before he rivals Abraham Lincoln who, according to one tally, has been portrayed in almost 40 films. Lincoln’s story, recently told in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, has been embraced so frequently because it so neatly fits into a simply Hollywood template. “He was a strong president, opposed to slavery and went to war to end it,” says Uscinski.

Hail to the chief

Nixon and JFK are frequently cited as the two presidents whose legacies have been shaped most significantly by cinema. All the President’s Men, set during the Watergate-era, reinforced a view of Nixon that still prevails. “That film certainly helped to consolidate the notion of Nixon as conspiratorial, politically manipulative and involved in the dark arts,” says Professor Morgan.

But movies can define a presidential figure in a manner that may stray from the truth. Two films, Oliver Stone’s 1995 Nixon and Ron Howard’s 2008 Frost/Nixon, paint a more benign view of the disgraced Nixon who resigned from office. Professor Toby Miller says these two films give “a kind of revisionist resurrection to his reputation – as a troubled soul.

Cinema has played a minimal role in shaping the legacies of those presidents judged as dull or low-key

Film has certainly played a role in providing audiences with a set of strong associations in relation to Kennedy, who as a president did much more than die under tragic circumstances. Joseph Uscinski says: “If you were to ask most people what they know about JFK it’s the assassination and the conspiracy behind it. And why is that? It’s because of Oliver Stone’s film called JFK.’”

Cinema, of course, has played a minimal role in shaping the legacies of those presidents judged as dull or low-key. To some, Presidents Dwight D Eisenhower, Ford and Jimmy Carter fall into this category. “They’re not heroic, inspirational figures,” says Professor Morgan. “Eisenhower was a much better president than many contemporaries thought he was. He would figure in the top ten presidents of all time, I think, for most people. But his style of leadership was very hidden-hand, very understated. That doesn’t work for Hollywood.

But with President Carter it’s his years since he left the White House that may be more engaging to Hollywood producers. “Carter’s strange legacy is that he becomes a fascinating figure after he’s the president, one could argue the key legacy comes not from the four years, but the 35 years afterwards. I think that there’s every possibility that they will get some very serious Hollywood attention,” says Professor Miller.

It’s not just feature films but documentaries can shape the way a president is perceived but often only to confirm opinions not determine them. When Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 arrived on screens it provided a searing indictment of George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’. It was potent but it may have only had a limited effect on how the public has come to view President Bush. It was preaching to the converted. Bush was a polarising figure and the film didn’t bring in people from across the aisle.

Polarised opinion has also defined Obama’s years in the White House and that may limit the ability of cinema to determine his legacy. “I don’t know how much room there is for a film to shape his image in the next 10 years because it’s written in stone. African-Americans love him, Democrats like him a lot, many of them wish he was more to the left. Republicans have a visceral hatred for him,” says Joseph Uscinski.

What’s more Obama is not going to go quietly into a silent retirement. He’s still relatively young. He may continue to be a dominant force in the media determining his own narrative. In this climate it may all but impossible for any feature film, however ambitious, to shape or define his legacy – at least in the short term.

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