'History will be kind to him': Obama biopic bodes well for president's legacy

Southside With You offers a fond farewell to the president during his final year in office – in stark contrast to scathing tales of presidents past

“On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb,” says a historical marker at the corner of Dorchester Avenue and 53rd Street in Chicago. “I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”

This is how Barack Obama remembers courting Michelle Robinson in 1989. The future president and first lady visited an art gallery, watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at the cinema, and talked and talked. Their meeting of minds is recounted in a movie, Southside with You, which opened on Friday to mixed reviews.

The flattering portrait was released to 813 cinemas in North America, far more than first planned, after positive reaction at the Sundance film festival in January. Opinion polls showing the president’s approval rating well above 50% will also have done no harm. “Mr Obama hasn’t even left office, but the cinematic hagiography has begun,” the New York Times commented.

Written and directed by 31-year-old Richard Tanne, Southside with You stars Parker Sawyers as Barack and Tika Sumpter as Michelle; the executive producer is the musician and Obama fan John Legend. It meanders through a series of conversations – reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise – against the backdrop of southside Chicago in the late 1980s. At one point, the ambitious young lawyers walk past a wall bearing the name of people killed on the city streets.

The movie sticks mostly to the facts, although a community meeting in a church, where Obama displays his rare talent for oratory, is incorporated from a later date. Michelle, 26, asks 28-year-old Barack if he has dated white women. Tanne has said he doesn’t know if this happened but imagines it probably did at some point. Valerie Jarrett, who in real life had dinner with the couple early in their relationship and is now a senior adviser to the president, does not appear.

Some critics have praised the film and others have been lukewarm. Obama’s conservative foes are likely to dismiss the film as propaganda. It comes at a wistful moment for the president’s admirers, as he enters the final stretch, his speeches sometimes punctuated by audience cries of “I love you!” and “four more years!”

The contrast with his predecessor, George W Bush – whose final year in the White House was greeted by Oliver Stone’s scathing biopic, W – could not be starker. Where Obama gets a gentle romantic comedy, Bush was seen boozing, going to war on a flimsy premise and threatening the family legacy.

“At the end of the Obama years, we get a glorification,” said Joshua Kendall, a presidential historian. “At the end of the Bush years, we get a denigration.”

Obama’s reputation appears to have grown in inverse proportion to his potential successors, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump enduring record disapproval ratings. Obama is campaigning for Clinton; Bush took a back seat during John McCain’s 2008 run for the White House.

obama on white house lawn
‘Obama is seen as a solid person.’ Photograph: Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images

Kendall added: “It’s a moment where the election is a downer on both sides, with all the darkness, and Obama is seen as a solid person. History will be kind to him. The film is going there, and is maybe a little too glowing, but it’s generally right. People [think] there’s an honesty and integrity about him.”

Southside with You is only the first cinematic valentine to Obama. Another film is imminent: Barry, about his time as a student in New York. Should America’s first black president write another memoir, a screen adaptation might be expected to follow.

“The problem with biography in general is it tends to be hagiography or denigration, in movies even more than books,” Kendall said. “In general, people don’t tend to want to take in the complexity.”

Obama is far from the first president to be lionised – or demonised – by Hollywood. Abraham Lincoln’s reputation was burnished by John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln in 1939 and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in 2012. Richard Nixon suffered a similar fate to Bush when he was played by Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, also directed by Stone, in 1995.

The British writer Peter Morgan, the author of political dramas including The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Special Relationship and The Audience, said: “In the US, when they talk about the president, they also talk about the head of state. I think they tend to portray their presidents heroically or as villains.”

Morgan has not yet seen Southside with You but suggested that, in general, it was wise to let the dust settle before turning political lives into art.

“I thought W was done far too quickly. I’m normally an admirer of Oliver Stone, but it was rushed out. I think the rule of thumb is to wait for 10 years. If you wait, then you have the possibility of something having a metaphorical aspect and being about more than itself.”

Recalling his own foray into depicting Nixon in a stage play and film about the former president’s landmark TV interviews with the British broadcaster David Frost, Morgan said: “In America, it was a play about Richard Nixon. In Britain, it was a play about David Frost.

“I had a particularly terrifying screening in Washington where all the old Watergate bounty hunters came to watch. Nixon was a very American tragedy which no Englishman could claim to own.”

There are signs in recent years that Hollywood is finding new ways to explore the White House. Franklin D Roosevelt, another president who might be expected to receive heroic treatment, was instead portrayed having an affair with his cousin in 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray and Laura Linney. Lee Daniels’ The Butler saw presidents come and go through the eyes of a black butler played by Forest Whitaker.

When he was played by Kevin Spacey opposite Michael Shannon in Elvis & Nixon earlier this year, for once Watergate was not the focus of a film about the 37th president. A recent HBO adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s play All the Way presented Bryan Cranston’s richly nuanced depiction of Lyndon Johnson as both angel and ape. Coming soon at the Venice film festival is the premiere of Jackie, featuring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination in 1963.

Not every politician, however, reads and watches coverage of themselves as assiduously as Trump does. Asked if Obama had seen Southside with You, White House press secretary Josh Earnest replied: “I have not talked to him about the film and I don’t know whether or not he’s seen it. But I’ll see if we can get you some information about that.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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