Culture Czar Obama Speaks

Armond White

Even though Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, his true office became apparent when, as president-elect, he appeared on the CBS Morning Show: Entering with a grin, he handed a cupcake to host Harry Smith as a birthday offering. That act confirmed Obama’s petitioning the media as his friend and colleague. The campaign continues with his annual best-of list, an edict from an inveterate culture czar.

As with every public statement from Obama, this list carries the whiff of a consultant team’s conference. Has he really surveyed the pop-culture field and gleaned these gems? Or does this list simply rubber-stamp mainstream media hype?

The alphabetical catalogue begins with Obama’s own Netflix project American Factory, followed by Amazing Grace, Apollo 11, Ash Is Purest White, Atlantics, Birds of Passage, Booksmart, Diane, The Farewell, Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Just Mercy, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Little Women, Marriage Story, Parasite, The Souvenir, and Transit.

Such an eclectic inventory makes one wonder whether Obama actually watched these films himself — it’s not an idiosyncratic moviegoer’s list but a media maven’s catalogue. These cagey choices conform to a certain group-think mindset: Each pick represents progressive values, even though some seem to go beneath the political radar and just coincide with what seems like popular taste. The Irishman? Why of course. Plus, it’s Netflix; employee loyalty matters.

But The Irishman is also consistent with ruthless, unabashed Democratic-party politics — and that love of criminal figures confessed when the Clintons performed a campaign spot that fondly imitated The Sopranos crime family.

Accented with foreign-language titles (Ash Is Purest White, Birds of Passage, Transit, Parasite) for middlebrow chic, the list also conveys class-related cynicism about social history and modern cynicism: Parasite being a pro-Communist (“Property Is Theft”), pro-Antifa comedy while Birds of Passage nods to the border crisis.

Not just a one-issue platform, the list solicits feminism (Booksmart, Little Women, Diane, The Souvenir) and the most powerful of all Obama elixirs, race (Amazing Grace — because endorsing Aretha Franklin is familiar political hackery — Just Mercy, The Farewell, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, plus Atlantics, a twofer teasing African heritage along with vengeful feminism).

The state of the nation is considered through Apollo 11, Ford v Ferrari, and Marriage Story, films that recall struggling industries and an institution so changed beyond recognition that the filmmakers can’t even admit it’s about divorce — that is, about incompatibility, competition, aggression, and polarized division.

The fact that there’s no offbeat new discovery on the list suggests a politician’s worst tendency: following polls, appeasing donors, and (as always) canvassing for approval. Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, easily the best Hollywood movie of the year, is conspicuously absent from the recommendations, perhaps because it invites individual thinking as well as honest, patriotic soul-searching. It doesn’t seek to inveigle by suggesting that pop culture is anodyne and lacks implicit politics. Obama’s list offers another cupcake to the media and its devious, ruling-class dictates.

 

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