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AFI Docs Review: “Bronx Obama”

Director Ryan Murdock profiles a single father in the Bronx trying to make it big as a presidential impersonator.

Image courtesy of AFI Docs.
UPDATE, 10/7/14: Bronx Obama is now available for purchase on iTunes, Vimeo, and other digital platforms, and will premiere on Showtime October 30. Watch the trailer and read the review below.

What if you woke up one day and realized you bore an eerie resemblance to one of the most powerful men in the world?

That’s the experience of Louis Ortiz, a single father in the Bronx who, after losing his job at a telephone company, begins to get recognized for his likeness to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Director Ryan Murdock follows Ortiz as he learns to capitalize on his accident of birth; he lands gigs in music videos and television shows, and goes from never having held a passport to flying to Japan and Australia for movie parts and appearances. (A memorable scene involves Ortiz performing in a funk concert with impersonators of Bono, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama to promote world peace.)

To accommodate his new career, Ortiz has to send his teenage daughter to live with his parents in Florida. (Though they stay in regular contact, it’s hard not to wonder whether part of him enjoys his second chance at bachelorhood.) The other issue? He’s still struggling to make ends meet. When he signs a contract with a manager who promises to help him polish his Obama impression and books him on a tour with Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney impersonators, it seems his big break has arrived—but the manager soon reveals himself to be a racist, abusive bully who’s on probation, as we’re told at the end of the film, for stabbing someone. Some of the film’s most demoralizing sequences show Ortiz trying to memorize his lines for the tour as his manager continually degrades him, refers to him as “Mexico” (Ortiz is Puerto Rican), and at one point says he plans to “harass the sh*t” out of him.

Ortiz is a frustrating character at times—he balks at his intense touring and practicing schedule, and one wants to remind him how much he has riding on his performance. Still, there are moments of levity and plenty of visual humor; it causes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to hear Obama’s clipped tones uttering swear words and rap lyrics, and Ortiz earns plenty of double takes as he walks the streets of New York in a POTUS-style suit and tie. There’s also a fascinating commentary on race and class in the idea of Ortiz, who once relied on welfare and has $60 to his name, parroting the President’s speeches on job creation and improving the economy, and shedding his working-class accent to adopt the tones and mannerisms of the far more affluent people who pay money to see him deliver jokes as someone else.

At one point in the film, Ortiz buys a lottery ticket at a convenience store. It’s a symbol of the hope he holds that no matter how unlikely, his life could suddenly transform by chance—which, much like achieving fame through his current livelihood, comes with astronomical odds. He’s tied his fate to the fortunes of a man he has never met—and though that man wields significant power, by the end of the film it’s unclear whether it’s enough to let Ortiz escape the Bronx for good.

Screening Saturday, June 21, 11 AM at the National Portrait Gallery, and Sunday, June 22, 3:30 PM at AFI Silver Theatre.

Return to AFI Docs page.