It is not a surprising fact that Hollywood has significant influence over attitudes and opinion in the United States. The role of the Department of Defense in funding film production and advising on scripts that range from Silence of the Lambs to Wonder Woman 1984 speaks to the influence at the fingertips of filmwriters. Hollywood movies shape the attitudes of the day even as they directly reflect it. Historian Bryan Jack writes that Hollywood has “created indelible images embedded in American culture,” while Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith agree that “few forces have been more dynamic … in shaping and reshaping understandings” of the nation. This is especially true when Hollywood tries its hand at telling stories of its country’s history. Put simply, historical fiction shapes historical understanding, and in turn is shaped by the zeitgeist of the day. As such, the boom in historic movie-making in what we can now consider ‘Obama-era’ is worthy of attention.
It’s true that films set in the past were far from a new phenomenon. However, the period 2009-2016 that coincided with the Presidency of Barack Obama saw a dramatic rise in films that addressed America’s racial past. Nine different films about slavery were released in 2012-2013 alone, for example, and the genre of ‘civil-rights drama’ also saw a revival. Films that both indirectly dealt with segregation, like The Help and Hidden Figures, to films following Civil Rights activists like Selma were a common presence in cinemas. At the very basic level, this suggests an increased awareness of race and racial history in American society. A country reckoning with the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement and its first African American president was naturally more receptive to such themes. More specifically, however, this wave of cinema reflected the specific optimism of the period.
Optimism is perhaps the theme most closely associated with Obama’s presidency, especially in his first term. Obama himself was catapulted to national recognition following his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention in which he celebrated “the audacity of hope.” He campaigned on the slogan “Yes we can!”, and for many Americans, his election represented the hope of racial progress in the nation.
Racial progress narratives quickly became post-racial narratives. The idea that, because a Black man had risen to the highest office in the country, American had moved past its racial sins was predominant. African America director Jordan Peele has described the environment of “the Obama era when everyone was saying we were past racism,” for example, and frequently refers to this as the “post-racial lie.” However, it was a lie adopted at least in part by many filmmakers.
Most simply, the act of choosing to make films about racism set in the past contributed to this impression. Matthew Hughey argues that the present was framed in a more positive light “simply by comparison” to stories from more racist eras. By showcasing overt and historically recognisable racism in the form of segregation, Klan violence, and iconic protests, the lack of these elements suggested a society no longer plagued by racism. The visual trappings of slavery, or the famous words spoken by Martin Luther King in Selma suggested a stark temporal separation and difference. The sheer volume of historic films about race in this period added significantly to that impression.
Furthermore, the specific manner of racism portrayed in many Hollywood dramas added to the impression of separation. Rather than dealing with racial issues as a systemic and diffuse issue, it was often presented as both violent and personal. It is true that this was due partly to the nature of Hollywood desiring both drama and clearly defined characters. However, racism is defined as direct and obvious through this process. The Butler opens with the murder of the protagonist’s parents, then first instance of violence in Selma is the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama, and 12 Years a Slave contains so much racial brutality that it has been criticised as “torture porn.” This characterisation suggests a palpable difference from the 21st Century, in which racism is often less overt. It also enables white viewers to consider themselves as non-racist, because they do not participate in the kind of violence they see on screen.
This non-racist self-perception is furthermore enforced by the portrayal of good whites, or the white saviour figure in historic films. These characters are sympathetic, and often directly help oppressed minorities on screen. They act as a point of contrast for overtly racist villains and enable film narratives to present racism as an individual choice that white actors can simply remove themselves from. This serves to prove, in the words of Allison Graham, “the inherent goodness of other whites.” In The Help, different white attitudes to race are portrayed through the personal conflict of white women Skeeter and Hilly, while Hidden Figures contrasts the attitudes of white scientists Harrison and Stafford. The Butler highlights real-life white historical figures like President Johnson as being sympathetic to the Civil Rights struggle. White audiences are encouraged to identify with these characters, while the agency of African Americans is reduced through their reliance on the white saviour.
This trope persists even as filmmakers attempted to raise Black heroes to the spotlight. Django Unchained, described as a “Black revenge fantasy”, still has its protagonist rescued and taught to fight by a white man whose death provides motivation for revenge. Even Selma, whose director Ava DuVerny has stated “I wasn’t interested in making a white saviour film,” spotlights a white volunteer in the final scene. The camera hovers on Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer who was later murdered by the Klan, and the audience is told about her work and sacrifice alongside the Civil Rights leaders.
However, the existence of films like Selma demonstrate something of a shift in the tone of films produced across the Obama administration. It soon became apparent that the US was not, in fact, approaching some post-racial utopia. The Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality formed around 2014. White nationalist resurgences culminated in violence. Debates around immigration took on fresh racial tones. Even President Obama, the supposed symbol of progress, found his own Americanness under question due to the colour of his skin. This environment, combined with a growing ability for Black filmmakers to get Hollywood projects, enabled a more skeptical voice to emerge in the latter Obama years. The credits to Selma, released 2014, are scored by Glory, an Oscar-winning song by John Legend and Common. It’s lyrics link past and present struggles, for example “That’s why Rosa sat on the Bus/ That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up,” suggesting ongoing racial problems. Spike Lee’s Black KKKlansman was released in 2018 yet reflects the anxieties of the late/immediate post-Obama era. The film is set in the 1970s, highlighting Klan violence beyond the expected time period, and the final scene cuts to real footage of the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ white supremacist rally in Charleston. The message, that these problems continue, could not be more apparent.
“I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could,” says the white villain of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror satire. This is not a historical film and chooses to set its racial violence in the immediate aftermath of the Obama era. Its racism is systemic and diffuse, carried out by self-identifying ‘not-racists,’ and ongoing to the present day. The tone of Get Out could not be more different from the flurry of hopeful Civil Rights cinema that marked the early years of Obama’s presidency. Instead of obvious racists squared away safely in the past, Hollywood films increasingly presented America’s racial sins as a continuing problem. Of course, historic dramas with sympathetic white characters remain, for example 2018’s Green Book or 2020’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven. However, the general trend suggests that the way US society views its past fundamentally changed over the course of the Obama era and beyond.
Written by Jess Womack