Over his eight years in office, Barack Obama can claim a number of presidential firsts: first black president of the United States; first to endorse same-sex marriage; first to appoint multiple women to the Supreme Court. But perhaps the most curious of "first" facts is that, by the end of this year, Obama will become the only sitting president to be the subject of not one but two feature films: Richard Tanne's Southside With You, which chronicles the first date between Obama and Michelle Robinson, and Vikram Gandhi's Barry, a lightly fictionalized account of Obama's junior year at Columbia University.
The films come late in the Obama administration – Southside was released this past summer, while Barry will be available on Netflix next month – but both are highly complimentary, even hagiographic portraits of a man destined for the Oval Office. Watching either film, be it Tanne's charming rom-com or Gandhi's introspective drama, it's difficult to ignore the enormous amount of goodwill and admiration Obama has generated within certain factions of the arts community.
It is also impossible to imagine Donald Trump engendering anything of the sort.
With the bullying, vindictive, hateful Trump set to assume command of the United States, Hollywood faces a burning question: Just how will it react to the presidency of a man intrinsically opposed to its mostly liberal values over (at least) the next four years?
Granted, that concern is far, far, far down on the list of what a Trump White House means for the rest of the world, in terms of the economy, civil rights, global security, justice, health and safety and every other aspect of daily life. But it is still a very real anxiety, and as a Trump-ified America becomes more of an unavoidable reality, it is assured that the cultural world will offer some sort of reflection.
Taking the optimistic view (hey, it can't hurt), Hollywood could step up to become the unofficial creative opposition it has always fancied itself to be. The industry has already taken baby steps toward singeing Trump and his politics of divisiveness (Funny Or Die's half-funny, half-meh The Art of the Deal), but the true challenge will be in producing works that explore and celebrate everything the demagogue stands against while at the same time not becoming parodies of liberal-guilt choir-preaching.
That means fewer self-aggrandizing documentaries from Michael Moore (whose TrumpLand might have succeeded in pushing voters toward the GOP), and more nuanced work from artists of diverse backgrounds and influences, whose voices have been thus far divorced from the political spectrum.
Does the world need, for instance, a bombastic Oliver Stone take on Trump, such as the director's satire W.? Should we indulge South Park's Trey Stone and Matt Parker, who are surely in the process of cooking up either a new Trump-focused episode or an Melania-centric Team America sequel? Hopefully, no. Trump is such an easy target that satire bounces right off him – he's the Teflon POTUS. An Alec Baldwin impersonation, a Joss Whedon-directed commercial, a Bruce Springsteen song, a Lena Dunham meme: We already know that these are useless in hitting the man where he hurts, or altering anyone's ideology.
Instead, if the industry wants to produce meaningful art in dangerous times, filmmakers will have to be more clever and skilled in the deployment of their talents. It's not impossible – and in fact, the Obama years have already provided a template. Most of Hollywood may love the man, but producers have not been so blind as to completely avoid critiquing his actions and policies, albeit in more roundabout ways, via narrative features such as Zero Dark Thirty, Eye in the Sky and Snowden (in which Stone was at his most restrained), and various documentaries (Guantanamo's Child).
Of course, all this assumes that Hollywood actually wants to be a progressive instigator. On the flip side, the more craven studios could find themselves cosying up to Trump's worldview and base – to, say, Make American Films Great Again. The mainstreaming of evangelical features would accelerate – think more Hacksaw Ridge-like movies, with their proselytizing masked by a big-budget genre sheen – as would the proliferation of Dinesh D'Souza-esque propaganda documentaries. That would be the nightmare scenario – the complete erasure of artistic autonomy and creative progress in service of oppressive pacification. But then again, weren't the events of Nov. 8 also once dismissed as an improbable bad dream?
If Hollywood has the courage, we might be able to find some artistic catharsis over the next four years – even if the darkness outside the multiplex is more enveloping than the one inside.