Black President

By cramming two blockbusters into a single screen, J Hoberman made White House Butler Down, the ultimate in late-Obama cinema. He talked with TNI film critic Brandon Harris about Hollywood, race, and the American presidency

A couple of weekends ago, former Village Voice film critic and longtime Cooper Union film professor J Hoberman hosted a very unusual screening at Light Industry. The Greenpoint, Brooklyn microcinema, run by programmer Thomas Beard and professor/author Ed Halter, remains one of the last places to see contemporary and repertory experimental work, as well as conceptually daring programs like Hoberman’s White House Butler Down. Hoberman, long one of the most essential voices discussing the intersection of American politics and the rhetoric of Hollywood motion pictures, presented The Butler and White House Down, two films that very much have the Obama administration on their mind, simultaneously, one projected atop the other. The experience was odd and revelatory, one which I’ve struggled to shake since. When viewed together like this, these two big, dumb movies, one with Oscar-baiting middlebrow pretensions, the other simply a testosterone fueled vehicle for unlikely buddy comedy and explosions, speak multitudes.

White House Down was projected slightly larger and with subtitles, while only The Butler’s soundtrack played through the PA, although sitting close to the projector, as I did, you could hear White House Down during the louder scenes. Both films, which were released within months of each other last year, are a minute or two over 130 minutes, dovetailing nicely for the purposes of Hoberman’s interrogation. The practice of viewing films this way, which Hoberman began doing as an adjunct at NYU in the early '90s, he refers to as “pedagogical projections,” which he hopes produce “unanticipated coincidences and precipitate unforeseen correspondences” across the movies.

Hoberman, who has published several essays about the ways popular cinema has responded to the Obama Presidency, most notably “Cine Obamarama: The Presiding-While-Black Scenario” in Film Comment and “A New Obama Cinema?” in the New York Review of Books, agreed to speak to me on the phone recently, after we both had some time to reflect on White House Butler Down and the age of Obama.

Brandon Harris: I want to talk a little bit, before we jump into the various aspects of the screening you held last week, about the national mood as it concerns the Obama presidency, and the ways the movies have represented or even helped shape that mood. Given the struggles and catastrophes he inherited, and the subterfuge and deceit from Congress that the President has been beset with from the beginning, what do you think are the most salient representations in contemporary movies of the peculiar nature of a black President, hamstrung by great economic unrest and unparalleled obstruction?

J Hoberman:  Well there are the movies that anticipated Obama, of which WALL-E and MILK are the most important, but WALL-E especially, because that’s the movie that Obama went out of his way to identify himself with during the summer of 2008. There are movies that are pushed forth from the Bush aftermath. There was one, which I thought was not uninteresting, with Brad Pitt as the hit man in New Orleans.

BH: Killing Me Softly. Which very much is trying to suggest a sort of malaise concerning the election of Obama,  a sense that it’s not going to work out after all. I think that’s one of the few movies that explicitly links the promise of his election to the immediate betrayal of that promise. But it’s a cynicism that only took off after a few years.

JH: Then there were the black president movies. And as I say in the article, to me that’s a very interesting trope, in science fiction film. On the one hand it was used to sort of suggest, “This is the future.” In the future this will be possible, Morgan Freeman could be the president. But then if you look at those movies you see that it’s always in the middle of some catastrophic situation. Even the forerunner of those movies, The Man, with James Earl Jones, same thing. He becomes president because of this series of accidents and assassinations and so on. So it’s an abnormal, possibly apocalyptic, circumstance that leads to a black President in the movies.

And it’s my feeling that this turned out to be true in a way with Obama, because of what was going on in the financial markets when he was elected, it was an apocalyptic moment. And I think that lots of people take credit for his election, but I do think that the most important aspect was the impending collapse of the economy. I feel that popular culture will always orient itself toward the president, although sometimes it’s a more powerful orientation than other times. The only thing that happened when Bush was president was that his era coincided with the rise of comic book superheroes and you can say there was just a national mood of denial and worry. I think with Obama it took a little longer and it was actually more thoughtful, because, whatever its many flaws, Hollywood is still a kind of socially progressive entity in the context of American politics. When Bush was president, Hollywood more or less stood in for the Democratic party.

I think the Saw cycle and some of the popular horror films that were dubbed torture porn were a sort of right wing reaction to the hopefulness of some of those comic book movies.

That certainly could’ve been. I saw those as following in a weird way the example of The Passion of the Christ, showing what could be possible by pushing torture to the brink. I think that the Hollywood movies that came out tended to be less generic and more thoughtful, which didn’t make them particularly good. I mean, The Butler is really mediocre at best and kind of egregious at its worst.

It has this dinner theater quality to it that’s pretty remarkable for its lack of subtly or truth.

Lee Daniels is a pretty crass director. I thought that when you put these two truly crass filmmakers together you would create something very subtle, and it’s funny that would happen as it did. But you know even that was a thoughtful movie. And certainly, the Spielberg film, Lincoln,  is clearly inspired by Obama. It's a cut above his other movies and wasn’t as glib as they normally are. Steve McQueen actually came out and said that he didn’t feel he could have made Twelve Years a Slave if Obama hadn’t been President. It created that space.

In Lincoln, the title character is beset by crises of course. He is forced to compromise with individuals and people representing institutions that he deeply despises and who quite openly want to kill him. I think one of the interesting things that Spielberg is doing in that movie is suggesting that compromising with forces that are working against the good and the just are the only way that history can proceed.

The film doesn’t quite censure the Tommy Lee Jones character, who represents the possibility of a more fair and just reconstruction, which the film sees as a radical pipe dream opposed to a real historical possibility. It suggests, pretty lightly, that his values are simply impossible in the time. And in a way I feel it’s a message to the type of person who supported the Obama campaign in ’08 expecting some sort of transformative change. I would be among those people, I might add. The movie’s message is quite a bleak one, under the surface of its dour but hopeful patriotism. It’s foolhardy to think necessary political change is an achievable thing. In Django on the other hand, we have the black savior figure. Someone who can magically liberate us from the perils of injustice. I feel like that film was, along with WALL-E, which you mentioned earlier, about the way in which the Obama campaign and administration projected him onto us.

As far as Lincoln goes I think of its authorial voice as Spielberg-Kushner. Maybe that’s my own prejudices. I think that it’s significant that it’s the one film that Obama and his advisors decided to publicly identify with. That’s the one where they set up screenings. One thing that surprised me was how little the Obamas use the White House screening room. At least that we’re aware of.

Clinton was the last real cinephile to hold the office.

All throughout the build-up to the war in Iraq and after, the Bush White House screening room was playing the most egregious stuff, like that Mel Gibson Vietnam film We Were Soldiers. They were beating the war drum with all this, showing all these movies and commenting on them to take out a page from Reagan’s playbook. Reagan would see something happening in popular culture and could intuitively attach himself to it on a higher level of consciousness than people anticipated. Obama didn’t, and doesn’t, do that. Although they did show that Tuskegee movie.

And they brought down the living Tuskegee airmen to screen it. Red Tails.

Lincoln was really the only movie that there was any kind of push for however. I don’t think your reading of it is wrong, but clearly Obama read it as a movie in praise of compromise and reconciliation. But he couldn’t even get that done, get them to come to a screening. He couldn’t even get these Republicans to go. It’s astounding. I remember back in the early days when he had this idea that they could all watch football together or something like that.

He underestimated how hard it would to make friends with these guys, to have some sort of meaningful working relationship with Mitch McConnell and Boehner. They were completely intransigent. Lincoln has a kind of happy ending, but it turns out that the happy ending is a fantasy. It wasn’t going to happen. And this was right around the time that he kept trying to make this bargain over the budget. And got nowhere.

One other fascinating point you brought up was the idea of the Black president in the future before we actually had a real one being this kind of balm for liberal sensibilities, this code that in the future progress is being made despite the fact that asteroids are hurtling toward the earth. I think in many respects that this does represent that Republican view of him, which we’ve been describing. This kind of neurotic fit-throwing is similar to the Cold War paranoia surrounding an untrustworthy political voice ascending unexpectedly, something you see a lot of in Kennedy-era cinema. I think in many ways some people on the far-right view Obama as if he’s the Manchurian candidate. The fact that he doesn’t have a coherent and recognizable African American identity like the black people they know, or at least have encountered (and felt superior to) only adds to that notion.

If you go back and look at the what was going on during the Kennedy administration,  he was widely hated. As was Clinton. Kennedy was really vilified, particularly after he was forced to take the stand against Wallace and what was going on in the deep south, the bombings, the terror. It just got so totally out of hand that he was compelled to do something. I mean he was treated as a traitor and a threat.

His otherness also revolved around his Catholicism quite a bit.

There’s never been another Catholic president, which is something to consider. Like Obama in a way he had to really go right out there and neutralize it as best he could. There is an analogy between Obama’s beleaguered presidency and Kennedy’s. I was 11 when he was elected. I was in junior high school. I could follow this stuff. And in my mostly left milieu in New York at the time it was naturally assumed that he was shot by an American Nazi or crazed segregationist or something. Given the tenor of the times that’s what seemed absolutely logical. And so with Obama after he was elected, a lot of us were very uneasy, thinking he has to be careful, that he too might be assassinated. But we didn’t realize there were other ways to assassinate people.

That’s perhaps a good segue into discussing your screening of White House Butler Down. I had not seen The Butler or White House Down before viewing them in that way. Immediately it struck me that, unlike the movies that previously featured black presidents in an apolitical crisis, where meteors are hurdling toward the earth no one in the audience is thinking about the fact that there’s a black president other than as the balm for liberal sensibilities, in this film the Jamie Foxx character is embroiled in a legitimate world-historical brouhaha in the Middle East. One that he’s trying to extricate the country from using the same sort of heightened language about our finest ideals and the better parts of our nature that Obama often does. He faces this opposition head on and they give up on using political means to defeat him and decide to attempt a coup. Although the movie doesn’t outright suggest that there’s a racial aspect to their motivations, it’s almost as if the movie wants you to feel that way.

Oh I think it does. It does hint at it, but it probably was less obvious in looking at the double projection. If it were possible, I would have liked to pause momentarily on certain lines or images. I do it when I hold screenings like this in an academic context. There are analogies to draw between his position in the presidency and, say, Seven Days in May, the Kennedy administration film. But he’s also analogous in some respects to the President that Michael Douglas played in The American President, who was more successful version of Clinton, or simply an idealized version. So Jamie Foxx is a kind of idealized Obama. But there are certain things that he says. He makes some reference to his sneakers at one point, before putting them on in the midst of the terrorist attack. And then you have the guy who is the speaker of the house, the Richard Jenkins character, who is ultimately responsible for the entire coup, and he says something to the effect that all people want a “cool” president.

Right, he says this to the aide when he’s walking in his office, before we have any idea what his actual intentions are.

He’s not cool enough to be president. I think that it’s pretty clear what the suggestion is there. Whereas the mastermind James Wood has his own craziness, the guys who he recruits, the terrorists, are presented somewhat oddly. He recruits them from the FBI’s threat list, they’re a potpourri of credible threats to the president’s life. The film presents at least one of them as a white supremacist.

So I think your point is well taken in that, Jamie Foxx is not in the position of let’s say Morgan Freeman with the asteroid heading towards the earth. I think that one of the things that happens by showing the two movies together is that there’s a black guy in the White House and he’s either subject to the crassiest of historical drama or the White House explodes.

If you’re watching White House Down normally, then you see that really he was a kind of Obama. He came up with this very great plan to defuse the Middle East and do these other things that presumably Obama would want to do. And that the people who voted for him wished would happen and so on. It can happen, but only in the movies.

I think about two-thirds of the way through the film, while they’re kind of traveling through the tunnels beneath the White House where there’s a little bit of exposition with Channing Tatum and Foxx. They’re kind of learning something about each other. And he says to Tatum something to the effect of, “You start out as a person who wants to make a difference and you end up being a politician.” And I think that that line was so telling, because I think it reflects the filmmaker’s desire to assuage or at least comment upon the disappointment that many feel with Obama. I mean his approval ratings as President are much lower than his overall likability. Especially in the black community, people still seem to respect him as a man even if they haven’t been satisfied with the results of his presidency. And I thought that line really resonated with me personally because it just felt like the movie was trying to nudge our thinking in that direction.

The scenario is consciously well meaning and unconsciously I don’t know what. The movie gets a lot of pleasure out this idealized Obama. Roland Emmerich can have a movie that ponderings things like that, but it’s still the second time he’s blown up the White House.

I think he’s making a Stonewall movie next.

That’s such a modest topic for him.

It’s a passion project.

They’ll try to destroy lower Manhattan.

Another interesting thing that I found about the juxtaposition of the two movies, that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the week and change since, is that on one hand you have a film like The Butler, which is so sort of consciously steeped in history, analogous as it is to Forrest Gump where this seemingly innocuous, non-important figure is witnessing these great moments in American history. This movie culminates with the suggestion that the Obama presidency is the end of history, the final realization of all of the aspirations of African Americans since we fled from the Jim Crow south, since we were liberated from slavery. The movie goes from him, his father dying literally with cotton in his hand and a bullet in his brain, to coalescing around another celebratory Obama lionization.

Whereas White House Down hints at how the specter of a black president might affect the nation or other people who seek power in the nation, but it can’t comment on them directly. It’s a movie that almost exists outside of history, a movie where we’ve invaded Iran but the events of 1953 are never considered, where white supremacists may have helped take over the White House. And so there’s a weird kind of tension that exists, watching the films on top of each other, given that they both have this kind of odd approach to history.

The Butler is very violent too. But that violence is all historicized and in White House Down it’s happening now.

I was just totally caught off guard by The Butler’s censure of radical politics. Obviously its protagonist is a man who is trying to assimilate and escape the terror of Jim Crow. But the movie takes on his ideological position while pretending to find some middle ground between his views and those of his eldest son, who at one point or another represents every tenable black liberative perspective from 1958 to the mid ‘70s. He goes from being a SNCC member and freedom rider to being a post Stokely Carmichael SNCC type person to being an outright black nationalist to being a Black Panther. That is a journey that very few African Americans took in their lifetimes, all the way from the far end of the liberal integrationist viewpoint to the furthest ends of the nationalist perspective. Perhaps it happened to someone, but few people are that ideologically malleable. Clearly his character is just a device. And yet I felt like the movie never really gives the son’s position a fair day in court, which goes back to the point earlier about Lincoln in that so much of mainstream Hollywood cinema seems incapable of suggesting that social change can’t come through any means other than top-down compromise. History disproves this premise of course.

The younger brother, the brother who is killed, is a kind of textural effect also. Daniels misses the nature of the opposition to the war in Vietnam, the fact that all these teenagers were being drafted isn’t really alluded to. It was the poorest and the most disenfranchised, it wasn’t people volunteering who were dying on the front lines. The volunteers went to officer training school. It was a different. The whole class aspect of the war is ignored. The great irony is that it was the accommodationist brother who is sacrificed. It’s completely schematic. Then the more radical brother ends up elected to congress at the end isn’t he?

He ends up being a mainstream ‘80s post-left black politician, like a contemporary Bobby Rush figure. Who, of course, was the only person to ever beat Obama in an election.

And where is he now?