In Marvel’s latest popcorn thriller, Captain America battles Hydra, a malevolent organization that has infiltrated the highest levels of the U.S. government. There are missile attacks, screeching car chases, enormous explosions, evil assassins, data-mining supercomputers and giant killer drones ready to obliterate millions of people.
President Barack Obama, the optimistic candidate of hope and change.
Five and a half years into his presidency, Obama has had a powerful impact on the nation’s popular culture. But what many screenwriters, novelists and visual artists have seized on is not an inspirational story of the first black president. Instead they have found more compelling story lines in the bleaker, morally fraught parts of Obama’s legacy.
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“We were trying to find a bridge to the same sort of questions that Barack Obama has to address,” said Joe Russo, who with his brother, Anthony, directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” “If you’re saying with a drone strike, we can eradicate an enemy of the state, what if you say with 100 drone strikes, we can eradicate 100? With 1,000, we can eradicate 1,000? At what point do you stop?”
Beyond “Captain America,” a virtual arts festival of films, books, plays, comics, television shows and paintings have been using as their underlying narratives the sometimes grim reality of Obama’s presidency.
The commando raid that Obama ordered to kill Osama bin Laden is the basis for the actions of the fictional President Ogden in the Godzilla comic books. Several episodes of CBS’s “The Good Wife” feature mysterious wiretaps of the main characters by the National Security Agency. Artists in California are protesting drones by sculpturing a Predator out of mud. In New York, playwrights are exploring disappointment in the pace of societal change in Obama’s America.
The public relations machinery of the White House assiduously tries to control Obama’s image and legacy, but there is nothing it can do to stop artistic interpretation of his policies. After inheriting a post-Sept. 11 surveillance state and security apparatus from President George W. Bush, Obama pulled back in some areas and expanded others. Artists have focused particularly on the NSA spying revelations disclosed by Edward J. Snowden and the president’s “kill list” of terrorists targeted by drones.
“The drone wars are really one of Obama’s signature foreign policies,” said Trevor Paglen, a photographer whose fuzzy images of drones flying through the skies are exhibited in galleries around the world. “We are living in a moment that’s characterized by this mass surveillance. I think art can help us call attention to certain things. It can help contribute to the cultural vocabulary that we use.”
Past presidents have also seen their actions reflected in the culture of the day. Ronald Reagan’s crusade against communism in Central America became fodder for 1980s movies such as “Red Dawn,” and Reaganomics inspired Alex P. Keaton, the conservative teenager played by Michael J. Fox on NBC’s popular sitcom “Family Ties.” Artists in the 1980s also used their canvasses to protest the conservative cultural movement that Reagan embraced and nurtured.
Bill Clinton’s White House inspired the NBC series “West Wing,” and the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was an irresistible story line for everything from cartoon strips to novels. When Clinton’s effort to capture a Somali warlord in Mogadishu went bad, the disaster became the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
The difference for Obama may be the gap between what his supporters expected and what they now see.
An artist named Kara Walker set off a minor controversy in 2012 with a black-and-white drawing displayed at the Newark Public Library in New Jersey. The drawing included an image of Obama standing at a lectern beneath a burning cross. It is titled “The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos.”
In New York City, the playwright Richard Nelson offered a series of four plays at the Public Theater that explored the lives of family members who, among other things, become disillusioned with Obama and his promises of change.
“The arts are often a left or progressive community,” said Nato Thompson, the chief curator at Creative Time, a public arts group in New York City that sponsors and promotes art exhibitions around the country. “There are a lot of people being let down by a president they were very enthusiastic about. There’s a big sense of betrayal.”
“It’s affected the tone” of the art being produced, he added.
He continued, “It’s getting more cynical and desperate.”
Issues like the continuing racial disparities in the nation’s prisons often become the raw material for paintings, poems, drawings and plays, Thompson said. “Where you have a black president but deeply racist policies are continuing like in the prison population, you have a lot of artists who are deeply interested in these contradictions,” he said.
But the most common artistic themes revolve around the surveillance and privacy issues.
On the campus of Occidental College in Los Angeles, the artists Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher sculptured a full-size, 55-foot-wide MQ-1B Predator drone out of mud. In an accompanying manifesto titled “We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust,” the artists say they are “proposing and modeling a possible act of resistance to the authoritarian machinery” of the drones.
In the Captain America movie, a politician played by Robert Redford argues that using super-drones to pre-emptively kill 20 million people to save the planet’s other 7 billion is an acceptable trade-off.
Anthony Russo, one of the directors, said the plot served dual purposes: creating an exciting narrative for a Hollywood action film while also giving people something deeper and more personally relevant to think about.
“That was very much our thinking in terms of trying to turn these helicarriers and Project Insight into the ultimate drone technology gone bad,” Russo said, referring to the movie’s aircraft carrier-size drones and a diabolical project to link the drones to a vast surveillance network. “We tried to come up with a fantasy expression or an allegorical expression of where those anxieties and problems can lead.”
Joe Russo said that moviemakers and other artists had seized on the shadowy themes of Obama’s presidency because more was known, in part through Snowden, about what the government was doing.
But Russo said that, in his view, Obama had been more transparent about some parts of his national security agenda, including drone strikes. In a speech last May, the president offered more detail than he had previously about the drone program and pledged to curtail it, with mixed results so far.
“Governments for thousands of years have enacted things that may not necessarily be in the best interests of the general populace or is offensive to the morality of the general populace,” Russo said. “Those things are typically hidden. In his administration, they have not been hidden.”
Which, he said, is good for creative tension. “That’s created a debate,” he said.