In 2016, the Toronto-based author and my friend Kevin Courrier was working on a book proposal based on a lecture series he had started entitled Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors, an examination of the past six decades of American cinema organized by various presidential administrations. Kevin passed away in 2018 after a long illness without writing the book, by which point I had taken over the lecture series. It is out of respect to him and the many long conversations we had on the topic that I created a monthly essay series at The Ringer that looks at the direct and subtextual representations of U.S. presidents and their social and political impact, beginning in 1960 with the campaign and election of John F. Kennedy and continuing through October to the Age of Trump—ending on a cliffhanger that may or may not have a sequel. By integrating some of Kevin’s film selections with more of my own, it is my hope to simultaneously reexamine a series of classic American movies and call attention to some neglected titles to further the idea of cinema as a fractured fun house mirror that distorts and reflects in all directions.
2008-2020: Sunken Places
“It’s halftime in America,” growled Clint Eastwood in a 2012 Super Bowl ad for Chrysler. The commercial, directed with a conspicuously gritty aesthetic by Eastbound and Down auteur David Gordon Green, yoked its star’s gravitas to the sort of sporting metaphor made immortal by his fellow actor turned politician Ronald Reagan, who drew on his most famous role as a tragic football star in imploring voters to “win one for the Gipper.”
For the internet’s roster of Monday-morning quarterbacks, “Halftime in America” was interesting mostly in terms of what it said about the larger political reality. It would have been predictable for a Republican figurehead like Eastwood to bemoan the prospects of a second term for Barack Obama, a president reviled by the right. But while the imagery in “Halftime in America” of unemployment lines and dilapidated factories was sobering, its message was stubbornly optimistic. In Slate, John Dickerson interpreted Eastwood’s message as being in sync with the incumbent administration and directed at skeptics: “If Clint agrees with Obama—that America is on the edge of a return—how can Obama be wrong?”
It wasn’t the first time that Eastwood had reached across the aisle. Four years earlier, as Obama was completing the swiftest and most stunning political ascendancy of the modern era—easily defeating John McCain in a campaign that doubled as a referendum on the failures of the Bush era—Eastwood scored his biggest commercial hit in years with Gran Torino, a seriocomic character study set on the outskirts of Detroit. The film used the titular Ford muscle car as a polyvalent symbol of American history and masculinity; in the film’s coda, Eastwood’s grizzled Korean war vet, Walt Kowalski, bequeathed the vehicle to his young Hmong neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) as a gesture of respect and acceptance, reversing his originally xenophobic perspective.
In some ways, Gran Torino played as an updated version of the martial, right-wing fantasies Eastwood had conjured up in the 1970s, a sort of Dirty Harry: The Later Years pitting the octogenarian writer-director-star against a group of vicious local gang-bangers. Yet its subtext was strangely conciliatory, and, from a certain angle, acknowledged the “audacity of hope” that marked Obama’s campaign. Like Rocky Balboa telling Gorbachev “everybody can change” at the end of Rocky IV, Gran Torino proposed a malleable patriotism that could accept and integrate difference while chiding the stubbornness of Greatest Generation types resisting what was blowing in the wind. That Eastwood’s parable of racial solidarity was riddled with slurs as a form of comic relief meant that the filmmaker wasn’t above pandering to the reactionary peanut gallery, but the film’s acclaim by liberal critics suggested that his heart was in the right place.
Of all the burdens taken on by Obama, the impetus to be that which his good-ol’-boy predecessor had falsely claimed—a “uniter, not a divider”—was among the heaviest. There was also his inescapable symbolic function as the first Black president of a country still reckoning with the divisions of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. This status made the former Illinois senator a lightning rod for both subtle and overt forms of racism from political foes and constituents alike, but it also made him Teflon in liberal districts like Hollywood, where his election presented a challenge to the cynical satirists who’d happily used Dubya for target practice.
One interesting byproduct of this shift was the arrival of movies manifesting a progressive agenda without ever strictly defining themselves as political works. The sweetly bohemian, stridently multicultural nuptials at the center of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married—a movie that climaxes with Robyn Hitchcock singing “we’re up to our necks in love”—radiated with optimism. The chatty African American lovers of Barry Jenkins’s 2008 debut Medicine for Melancholy, a beguiling romantic comedy made under the sign of Before Sunrise, felt like emissaries from a brighter future.
Always eager to surf the zeitgeist, the crypto-conservative contrarian critic Armond White proposed that the first true cinematic Obama manqué was Will Smith in Hancock, which he described as the story of a “black do-gooder who charms the mainstream through a guise of ‘difference.’” Beyond its surface provocation, White’s point illuminated something true about Hollywood under Obama, which was a proliferation of superhero movies reflecting a newfound trust in figures responsibly wielding unimaginable power. The standard-bearer was Iron Man, a technocratic fantasy about a billionaire weapons manufacturer who substitutes an Arc Reactor for a heart of gold. It may or may not have been significant that Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was defined by daddy issues, but it was hard to deny the resonance of seeing Iron Man and the other Avengers rally around Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury— an avatar of Black authority calling the shots in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Jackson may be the key actor of the Obama era, mostly because of the associations he brought with him as indie cinema’s breakout Black icon decades earlier. By working regularly with both Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee in between bigger industry gigs, Jackson represented an impressive mix of pedigree, principles, and mobility; he also embodied contradiction. After Jackie Brown, Spike Lee castigated his pal for acting as Tarantino’s get-out-of-jail-free card when it came to using the N-word; empowered by both his popularity as an actor and his past as an activist, Jackson refused to budge. If anything, he doubled down. Jackson barely figured into 2009’s Inglourious Basterds—essentially QT’s version of an Avengers movie, right down to Brad Pitt as a dopey, Nazi-smashing Captain America—but was front and center in 2012’s Django Unchained as a resentful plantation servant plotting against Jamie Foxx’s emancipated bounty hunter. It was a role that seemed like a dare to anybody—Spike Lee included—who had ever accused the QT-Jackson alliance of artistic irresponsibility.
The clash of wills between Foxx and Jackson is easily the most audacious aspect of Tarantino’s film, which competed for Best Picture against Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. (They both lost, somehow, to Argo, with the statuette handed out by Michelle Obama.) Besides being Spielberg’s most effectively acted and directed movie in years—a superbly entertaining period piece presided over by a magisterial Daniel Day-Lewis—Lincoln was also, unmistakably, an Obama allegory. Writer Tony Kushner used a historical narrative about bipartisan collaboration to suggest the necessity of keeping the country together in the present tense. With less ambiguity than “Halftime in America,” Lincoln pushed the same message: four more years.
Spielberg copped to the connection when he directed a satirical short film for Obama’s 2013 inauguration in which he jokingly revealed he had thought about casting Day-Lewis as the 44th president in a new biopic. It was a cozy in-joke tilted 180 degrees from Eastwood’s infamous walk-on a few months earlier at the Republican National Convention, where he heckled an empty chair. The act was supposed to symbolize Obama’s lack of accountability to conservative voters, but while Eastwood clarified that he meant no disrespect, his stunt evoked the title of Ralph Ellison’s canonical novel Invisible Man—a fable of African American alienation.
By 2013, whether as a good-natured foil or a structuring absence, Obama was ensconced in popular culture. That year, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down mashed up In the Line of Fire, Die Hard, Air Force One, and Independence Day to tell the story of a hip, popular Black president repelling a military coup led by James Woods (who may have thought he was acting in a documentary). In Django Unchained, Foxx had flexed a modern sense of defiance in retro garb; in White House Down, he went even further into action-hero territory, acting out an outlandish fantasy of the commander-in-chief as a machine-gun-wielding badass.
The cartoonish potency of White House Down would resurface in tonier packaging in Lee Daniels’s comic-strip picaresque The Butler, a riff on Forrest Gump starring Forest Whitaker as a White House butler who bears intimate witness to a series of 20th-century presidential administrations. The film was touted by Obama himself, who hailed it as a tribute to generations of African Americans prevented from attaining positions of leadership by repressive social forces. It was also a hit, but it lost at the Oscars to 12 Years a Slave, a more harrowing and artistically unsparing picture that refused to sanitize its fact-based narrative or exploit it for uplift. The movie’s signature image was a brutally long, drawn-out shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup dangling precariously from a noose, feet barely touching the platform beneath him, suspended between life and death while in the background, plantation life bustles indifferently around him—a devastating tableau composed by director Steve McQueen as a challenge to spectatorial complacency.
The common denominator between Django Unchained, The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave—as well as Tate Taylor’s The Help, a distaff companion to The Butler—was a theme of embattled Black people, reflecting Obama’s duress during a presidency in which Republican policy makers stonewalled him on every front. Hard-right outliers like Dinesh D’Souza translated this animus into quasi-documentary attacks (i.e., the hysterical hit piece 2016: Obama’s America), but there were more nuanced critiques as well. Footage of Obama’s second inauguration was integrated into Andrew Dominik’s pitch-black comic thriller Killing Them Softly, which dismissed the president’s rhetoric as rationalization for top-down, cutthroat American greed. (“America’s not a country, it’s just a business,” rasps Brad Pitt’s diffident mercenary assassin.) Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning Edward Snowden profile Citizenfour took aim at the administration’s expansion of Bush-era surveillance policies, tacitly anticipating the catastrophic online espionage and resultant splintering of the left that would define the 2016 election.
In a cringe-worthy exchange revealed during the 2014 Sony email leaks—the Hollywood equivalent of the Snowden affair—producer Scott Rudin and cochairperson Amy Pascal joked about the kinds of movies the president might enjoy or even consider financing: Django Unchained, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave. Sony’s apologies notwithstanding, the emails revealed something cynical—and true—about the industry’s calculated assessment of Obama’s second term. Where even in the 2000s, movies with overt racial themes or by Black creators were largely considered niche or counterprogramming options, by 2014 such productions experienced a notable uptick in mainstream support and marketing. Ava DuVernay’s scrappy indie debut Middle of Nowhere won critical plaudits, but her bigger-budget follow-up Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., received a splashy awards-season push that the filmmaker leveraged (with help from Spike Lee) into the #OscarsSoWhite movement on social media. The N.W.A origin story Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, was pushed as a prestige release and got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And in 2017, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight became the second movie by a Black director to win Best Picture, upsetting La La Land in an unforgettable live-television moment whose drama was heightened considerably by the off-screen context.
“You can almost see it emblazoned across a bright red ballcap: make movies great again,” Film Comment’s Michael Koresky wrote in a withering 2017 essay proposing La La Land’s “aggressive aesthetic of nostalgia” as a corollary to Donald Trump’s full-contact populism. Even if La La Land’s mostly deracinated L.A. backdrop and tale of a white jazz aficionado refusing to sell out to his Black bandmate was only accidentally reactionary—and that’s a big “if”—the film’s flaws made Moonlight look better and more urgent by comparison. Jenkins’s desire to make a contemporary, queer African American experience visible and accessible to a mainstream audience was not business as usual: It was an indicator of paradigm shift. And in the wake of Trump’s inaugural warning against—and also promising—“American carnage,” Moonlight’s triumph felt like a salve for many.
Long before he ran for president, Donald Trump had been a presence in American cinema. Besides the movies that used him as a model for greedy capitalist asshole characters (i.e., Gremlins 2, with its vertically integrated villain “Daniel Clamp”), the headline chaser assented to numerous cameos playing himself. In 1992, he helped Macaulay Culkin navigate New York in Home Alone 2. (Back then, it seems, he didn’t like seeing kids separated from their parents.) In addition to his day job as a TV star, Trump also cultivated a side gig as a Twitter movie critic, bitching about the Twilight saga almost as often as he did about Obama’s heritage.
There isn’t space here to inventory all the ways in which Trump’s shtick was energized and magnified by his relationship to (and to some extent, command of) pop-culture forms. But in the same way that he wormed himself into the narrative of his predecessor, Trump’s presence could be felt onscreen early in the 2010s. He was there in the DNA of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street, an ecstatic, sickening biopic about stock market grifter Jordan Belfort, brilliantly played by Leonardo DiCaprio as a guy in thrall to the Trumpian ethos of profit at all costs. He was on the mind of Adam McKay during the making of The Big Short (2015), a skittering, satirical docudrama about the 2008 financial crisis skewering double-dealing corporate greed. Emboldened by that film’s success, McKay produced a viral short for the website Funny or Die entitled Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie starring a heavily made up Johnny Depp inventorying Trump’s debacles in the ’80s as a racist landlord and crooked real estate mogul; while not without its inspired moments, The Art of the Deal mostly succeeded in showing—and not for the last time—how a figure as absurd and hyperbolic as the Donald was impervious to satire.
Part of Trump’s appeal during the Republican primaries was the way his obstinate persona seemed to channel the frustration of a cohort famously—and fatally—referred to by Hillary Clinton as “deplorables.” By leaning into this inchoate rage, Trump became a folk hero, effectively weaponizing the “audacity of hope.” Although instead of the hope, he emphasized the audacity; the better world he promised was one in which his rivals weren’t just defeated, but locked up.
A case can be made that Quentin Tarantino’s two-part, three-hour Civil War–era Western The Hateful Eight is his worst movie—and a showcase for some of his most deplorable aspects, including grandstanding depravity, misogyny, and racial provocations once again signed off on by Samuel L. Jackson. Still, its vision of a society riven by mistrust and multidirectional misanthropy felt on the mark circa Christmas 2015, and the atmosphere hasn’t exactly evaporated since. Tarantino’s most effective moment comes when Jackson’s character, a Union general with a proud history of killing racists, reveals that a fan letter he’d been given by Abraham Lincoln is a forgery. The twist comes as a rebuke to Spielbergian hagiography, implying, with equal measures comedy and tragedy, that Lincoln’s vision of political equilibrium was only ever a lie, a well-intentioned fabrication.
If Lincoln was meant as the first movie of Obama’s second term, The Hateful Eight felt like the beginning of a long goodbye. Not because Tarantino was pro-Trump, of course, but because his epic of mistrust, discrimination, and pent-up, insatiable violence got at something poisonous in the air. Some of the more notable American movies of the past few years have tried to dissipate that aura by spritzing the cinematic equivalent of sanitizer over all the open wounds, whether via The Shape of Water’s vision of a diverse coalition of heroes (immigrant, Black, gay, amphibian) tangling with an emissary of straight white male evil, or Green Book’s reverse Driving Miss Daisy scenario of a (slightly) racist goodfella learning to resist his worst impulses. (All that’s missing is a Gran Torino.) Such movies are recognizable as gestures of resistance. Yet they’re feeble and disposable compared to the ones that truly plunge into the abyss, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, with its brilliant central metaphor of “the sunken place”—the yawning abyss that entraps Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris as part of an insidious white supremacist plot.
Get Out joins Justin Simien’s Dear White People, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You as contemporary satirical comedies filled with striking images and ideas about racial masquerade. The blackface frat party in Dear White People connects to the horrifying-slash-hilarious reveal of Get Out as surely as the hero’s adoption of a white cadence for his telemarketing gig in Sorry to Bother You rhymes with BlacKkKlansman’s stranger-than-fiction sting operation. Lee, as is his wont, went further than his peers in interjecting his satire as a blunt instrument against Trump, integrating footage of the Charlottesville protests and riots into BlacKkKlansman’s climax and denouncing the president during his Oscar acceptance speech—on the same night that Green Book’s brain trust seemed to pat themselves on the back for solving racism once and for all.
In terms of blockbuster-sized American movies, the filmmaker who has made the biggest mark during the transition between administrations is probably Ryan Coogler. The surprisingly powerful, wonderfully satisfying Rocky sequel Creed showcased Michael B. Jordan as an Obama-ish up-and-comer shadowboxing his absent father’s legacy. It set up the billion-dollar breakthrough of Black Panther, a movie far less radical than its title—and weirdly unsympathetic to Jordan’s persuasively antiestablishment villain—but still hugely significant as the first Marvel movie fronted by a non-white superhero. Another candidate would be the Italian documentarian Roberto Minervini, whose embedded, unobtrusive, observational style yielded unforgettable footage of anti-Obama militiamen in 2015’s The Other Side (a Trump-era title if there ever was one) and anti-police-brutality activism in 2018’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? Minervini’s refusal to insert himself into his work stood in sharp opposition to the self-aggrandizing efforts in the same year of Michael Moore and Errol Morris, with the latter’s Steve Bannon interrogation, American Dharma, playing as one of the most miscalculated docs of the decade, functioning essentially as a platform for its subject’s rhetoric.
Morris was probably hoping that if he gave Bannon enough rope, the architect of Trump’s election would eventually hang himself, but American Dharma frequently shows its maker being outfoxed. Its one effectively symbolic image of a house on fire was used better by Korean director Lee Chang-dong in 2018’s Burning, a brilliantly multifaceted thriller that captured simmering class resentment and gendered aggression in ways that felt universal while still pointing to Trump’s United States as an epicenter. In a crucial moment, Lee cuts to a shot of the president speaking on television, inescapable even to those living on the border with North Korea.
Burning would of course be joined in short order by Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, an even sharper and more acclaimed study of class stratification whose Best Picture victory was cheered by pretty much everybody except Trump, a moment that stands as the last happy memory of a normally functioning film culture pre-COVID-19. 2020 has yielded some strong and politically resonant films, from the barely veiled Weinstein critique of Kitty Green’s The Assistant to the tender revision of Western myths and economic wisdom in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. More directly, Aaron Sorkin styled his new courtroom drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7, as commentary on activism, drawing parallels between the principled chaos of the late 1960s and a moment of widespread protest. The film has its problems, but the casting of Sacha Baron Cohen as Yippie prankster Abbie Hoffman is inspired: one kamikaze political prankster deserves another.
It might have improved Borat 2 if the title character had attempted, Hoffman-style, to levitate the Pentagon; Cohen’s sequel went online last week in an attempt to affect the election, but the film is a mixed bag, recycling jokes from its predecessor and alternating cheap shots at easy targets with the odd bull’s-eye. The scenes of Borat hiding out with QAnon types could be outtakes from The Other Side, while the image of Cohen in fat-suited Trump drag calling out to Mike Pence as the vice president assures a cheering crowd that COVID is nothing to worry about should have staying power. We’ll know soon enough whether Borat 2’s feature-length attack ad marks the end of an era, or if it will go down as just another halftime show.