Obama’s America, on screen

Four years ago, on the historic occasion of Barack Obama's first inauguration, we took a look at the good, bad and outrageous movie characters who helped make his election possible. The road to the White House, we wrote, hadn't just been paved by Obama's speeches, innovative campaign strategies and the hopefulness of a majority of voters, but also by decades of African-American men in movies. From the class striving of Sidney Poitier's everyman in the classic film A Raisin in the Sun to Will Smith's messianic loners in recent titles like I Am Legend, the movies have ennobled, consecrated, glorified, immortalised and, most important, normalised the figure of the black man.

Now, the images are more complex, and in some ways blurrier. Politically and personally this president functions as a screen onto which different Americans project their fears and fantasies. From the right, the picture is often of a monster whose policies are steps on a scary road to socialism or some other exotic form of tyranny. Many liberals, by contrast, have expressed disappointment at his willingness to compromise with Republicans and his reluctance to fight. At different times and from various angles Obama is a fiery orator, an aloof intellectual, a policy nerd and a shrewd strategist. He is notoriously resistant to sketch-comedy impersonation and also, perhaps, to simple pop-cultural appropriation.

Last year in The New York Review of Books, the critic J. Hoberman wondered when we would see an "Obama-inflected Hollywood cinema". It may be too soon to identify an Obama Cinema, but the president's second inauguration seems like an appropriate time to try. His first term wasn't easy for Hollywood, representationally; the most visible evidence for this seeming paralysis was the whiteout that descended over the 2011 Oscars, where African-Americans were conspicuous only by their absence.

Subsequent Oscar nominations for The Help partly rectified the colour imbalance. This year race is firmly back on the table with movies like Lincoln and Django Unchained. Yet much like Obama, who has rarely made race a topic of conversation, the current nominees for best picture speak to other issues, including war, the economy and just about everything else. Some of the connections between politics and movies are obvious, but we wanted to go beyond the topical resonance of films like Zero Dark Thirty and enter into the realms of allegory and national mythology. Here is our highly preliminary, wildly speculative thematic guide to American cinema in the Obama Era.

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