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Making History

January 23rd, 2009 (10:14 pm)

© 2009
D. Gordon

Well, unless you've been under a rather large rock lately, you know what happened this week: the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama, a man who also just happens to be African-American.

And what an inauguration it was: record crowds, and much hoopla, and a lot of tears and smiles. (And even some protests.) Balls and parades and gowns and bow ties. A lot of firsts yet deep roots in tradition.

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All presidencies end up leaving an imprint on popular culture. Jelly beans, broccoli and pork rinds are one manifestation; but signs show up in all sorts of nooks and crannies, including both in theaters and on television sets. Those screen manifestations aren't the historical epics celebrating the likes of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, or the documentaries about rises to and falls from power; rather, they show up at the cineplex and on the flat screen as the summer popcorn flicks, Hollywood blockbusters, and must-see tv shows that at least reference the sitting president, if not outright feature him.

Examples of this are pretty easy to come by. A quick chronological rundown of the past few Commanders in Chief comes up with:

  • Ronald Reagan: Family Ties featured Michael J. Fox as Alex the Reagan Youth (a role which made his career), but there was also quite a bit more, including the memorable UK political satire Splitting Image and its recurring skit around Reagan's brain's beach vacation. Even Rambo has its Reaganesque influences.

  • George H.W. Bush: not as much. One of the most notable presidential movies, Bob Roberts, came out late in his term, but really spoke to the Reagan years.

  • Bill Clinton: The West Wing, of course. And Primary Colors. There was also youthful-president fare such as The American President, The Candidate, and Air Force One.

  • George W. Bush: like Clinton, there's much here - the short-lived sitcom That's My Bush!, Lone Star, Swing Vote, and well, Oliver Stone's W. In a bizarre reversal of life and art, George W. Bush also inspired 24, which in turn inspired Administration policy decisions - a new genre that could have been titled "What Would Jack Do?". Sometimes it would be good if the relationship between art and life weren't quite so flexible.

The screen images may not be exact, they may not be strictly concurrent, and they may not even be strictly American, but traces of the presidency always crop up in some form.

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So what will presidential films look like in an Obama era?

Beyond generating quite a bit of controversy, George W. Bush wasn't the most articulate of speakers; as such, he produced a lot of material (endless, some would say) not only for films but for the late-night comedic crowd. Barack Obama, however, just comes across as too measured and mature to follow in those footsteps (after all, as I remember it, the last election was about change). That may rule out comedy; but, of course, comedy isn't the only thing out there.

One interesting observation is that the idea of an African-American president (or, for that matter, a female president) has already been explored several times over. To paraphrase a bit I heard recently: if it were up to Hollywood, we would've had the first Black president in the 1990s and his name would have been Morgan Freeman. (And, unfortunately, chances are the earth would have been subsequently destroyed, too.)

But neither the wise old Black man nor the comic relief Commander-In-Chief figures fit President Obama. A good-looking, youthful man with a good-looking, youthful wife and adorable little girls is something quite different. This president is intelligent and serious, and means business - even starting work right after the inauguration ceremony and luncheon.

So, maybe Camelot II? There are the Kennedy parallels. Actually, I can see a Denzel saving-the-world blockbuster (with, of course, Denzel). Or maybe a semi-return to The West Wing; after all, it has been reported that the Jimmy Smits character was modeled on Obama, easy enough to take that one step further.

And there's also the possibility that some young turk, looking to make his or her mark, is toiling away in a cramped apartment, crafting a new vision of the popular man's president to match the rest of the firsts that this new president brings.

So there it is: new administration, new cultural markers. That's part of the fun of seeing what will happen.

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But whatever happens, despite all the things that need to be solved in the next few years, and whether or not you even personally agree with Obama's policy positions, there's no doubting that the United States passed a very important milestone this week. And maybe we're all that much closer to judging people by the content of their character rather than the circumstances of their birth.

Kind of a nice feeling, that.

From the New York Times