Wednesday’s State of the Union address gave the Boston Phoenix‘s Peter Keogh the chance to contemplate whether Obama’s first year in office has changed anything about the representation of African-Americans on-screen. (Short answer: no.) But he also reminds us that Obama’s already made his first cameo appearance as President: in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” glimpsed on a JumboTron in Times Square. And he’s shown up as a wuss: We don’t negotiate with terrorists. Or robots.
The insertion of real presidents in fictional contexts is a fairly recent phenomenon. FDR was in all kinds of World War II movies, but that’s the norm for propaganda. Dwight D. Eisenhower had an odd appearance in the Helen Keller documentary “The Unconquered” where she felt his face, but that’s a documentary. You certainly didn’t find footage of LBJ, Nixon, Carter or Reagan in movies made during their presidencies. “Hot Shots! Part Deux” did recap George Bush senior vomiting on the Japanese minister’s lap, but that’s about it.
Bill Clinton was the first guy to get significant, non-documentary screen time during his administration, with appearances in “The Jerky Boys” (really?) and “Contact,” where he looks all pensive about the alien transmission. The usage was neutral — it didn’t really have much to say about Clinton’s image. For true overstatement, you have to turn to the George W. Bush years, cut into “Demonlover” as a sign of the times, “Definitely, Maybe” as the accompaniment to Ryan Reynolds’ political saga, and, of course, the “The Blind Side,” in the moment where the DMV clerk points to a picture of W. as the reason things are so slow.
It’s safe to say that W.’s presidency made him visual shorthand for the war in Iraq and economic freefall; his onscreen iconogoraphy is charged in a way that Clinton’s wasn’t. And Obama? Well, who knows: the “Transformers” shot seems like an anomaly. We’re one year in, though, and people are nervous and antsy. The real question is if all those dreary Iraq movies of the Bush administration will find their equivalent under Obama. Will he be placed on-screen (something not even the ham-handed likes of “Rendition” did)? Because right now, you couldn’t really use him as shorthand for Hope and Change the way you could a year ago.
[Photos: Obama via Wikipedia commons; “Definitely, Maybe,” Universal, 2008]