It is way to early to think about this (or maybe not, since Oliver Stone’s “W” dramatized the life of a sitting president), but I keep hearing the word “history” used over and over again today in the media. Barack Obama getting elected the 44th President of the United States is certainly historic. I even heard a caller on a talk show this morning talk about how tears were streaming down his face while he watched the TV last night.
“It was like the ending of ‘Ben-Hur’!” he said.
History being compared to movies. I think that’s a signal that now it’s time to think about who will play Obama in the eventual biopic of his life.
“Too soon!” you may say. And, technically, I might agree. But isn’t it fun to play the game?
It’s crazy how quickly current events are turned around into historical films these days. HBO’s recent “Recount” was about the fight over the 2000 election. Paul Greengrass’ amazing “United 93″ conveyed the immediacy and urgency of Sept. 11. On the less serious side of things, the usual turnaround of TV movies about sensational news stories like the Texas cheerleader scandal, the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident, or the baby caught in a well has been traditionally very fast. (And how many Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuco movies were rushed into production?)
Especially in this lightning-fast communications age, we are also able to see history as it happens. What’s bizarre is how quickly an event can be registered as “history.” No doubt, yesterday was one of those days. And movies and TV played a huge part in the making of yesterday’s election results. Don’t think that they didn’t. Besides the fact that Americans had two full years to observe the way Obama carried himself as a public figure, we also had two years to get used to the idea of a black president. It wasn’t that hard; it’s something that has been out there in the culture for quite awhile.
It’s often said the Hollywood is extremely liberal, so black actors portraying the President in movies like “Deep Impact” (Morgan Freeman) or “Head of State” (Chris Rock) are no surprises. (Not to mention “The Fifth Element,” “Idiocracy,” “The Man,” although those weren’t necessarily game-changers). Probably the role with biggest cultural effect, however, was from Fox’s “24,” a TV show created, ironically, by a conservative writer/producer.
David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysbert, the reassuring presence from those Allstate commercials) was one of those tough presidents who tackled problems with an equal amount of smarts and morality. He was the kind of president you’d wish we could have in the White House one day, and his run on that popular TV show did a lot to get the country used to the idea of a black president, I believe. He was assassinated after he was out of office, and his brother Wayne Palmer (D.B. Woodside) was elected not long after that. Two black presidents. One show. Plus lots of sketchy, scheming white men swirling around them…
Now that the moment is upon us, let’s get hypothetical. What current actor has the range, gravity, and physical characteristics to play President-elect Barack Obama in a movie?
My top choice would be Jeffrey Wright, who was so good as the moral compass in “W.” He played Colin Powell as a character, not an impersonation. His conflict and conscience were guiding lights in a movie where virtually everyone else had their own agendas. He’s proven in tons of great supporting roles (Bill Murray’s loquacious best friend in “Broken Flowers” and the uber-confident villain in “Shaft” leap to mind) that he’s got the chops and I think he could portray Obama’s tenacity in all the key moments in his life.
Will Smith would obviously be any movie producer’s first choice due to his box office clout, and I think he could handle it. He made me forget he was Will Smith in Michael Mann’s flawed-but-interesting “Ali,” and would have the same uphill battle portraying another very famous face were he to tackle Obama.
Terrence Howard, recently let go as Jim Rhodes in the “Iron Man” series, might be a good choice. He was totally convincing in his Oscar-nominated role as the pimp-turned-rapper in “Hustle and Flow,” and that same year played a successful yuppie TV producer in “Crash.” (Though I hated the movie, his performance was quite good.)
Lastly, I think British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is a true chameleon. Having appeared in everything from “Children of Men” down to “Love Actually,” he is probably the most versatile actor on this list. Plus, he is not a household name or a bankable actor yet, so his personality won’t get in the way of Obama. Right now, especially with his hard-to-pronounce name, he is still “that guy who’s always good in everything he does.” He also has a history of choosing really risky roles with great directors over more commercial work,
Now it’s time to hear from you all. It’s probably too early, but we all know it’s a great story, and Hollywood loves great stories, especially the against-all-odds “only in America” kind.
Who do you think should play President-elect Barack Obama in the inevitable movie biopic?