It’s not easy being President of the United States, and it’s not easy looking just like him either. In 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama began his ascent to the White House, Louis Ortiz discovered that he had a rare and potentially valuable commodity: he was the spitting image of the future President. In Bronx Obama, we follow Ortiz as he tries to turn his doppelganger luck into a legitimate venture: from a gag he does for a couple of hundred dollars here and there, to a full-blown career as a presidential impersonator. There are a lot of documentaries about election campaigns, and there are a lot of political sketch comedies, but Bronx Obama is the bizarre love child of both.
Recall that the real Obama was elected in the midst of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, and that there were millions and millions affected in a malaise of joblessness and economic insecurity. Ortiz was one of those people. A single father who found himself without work after he was laid off, he sent his daughter Reina to live with her mother’s parents in Florida while he struggled between odd jobs. When he discovered the Obama connection, he shaved his goatee, took out his earring and put on a suit and tie to play President. Some film work and music videos opened doors, but he was being held back by one thing: the voice.
If anything, the film should give you a new appreciation for celebrity impersonators, as Ortiz goes to Obama boot camp to learn the voice, affectations and body language of the President. It’s not easy, but as Ortiz learns the sibilance, he slowly goes from a guy who just looks like Obama, to becoming a fairly decent approximation. Ready for prime time, as it were.
As a filmmaker, director Ryan Murdock is treated to a tremendous character arc with Ortiz, who discovers his talent, trains to get better, and overcomes challenges to enjoy success. One can’t help but be reminded of the Ivan Reitman comedy Dave, which is about a presidential impersonator who is forced to sub for the real deal when he has a stroke. Of course, there’s nothing that dramatic here, but as the economy and the country continue to struggle, there’s a bizarre kind of blowback on Ortiz. In one scene, he gets drawn into the politics by Mitt Romney impersonator Mike Cole, about who’s going to win the 2012 election, and how much of the current malaise is Obama’s fault.
There are other struggles, too. Ortiz becomes part of a travelling presidential comedy show that turns out to be quite a grind as he and a troupe that includes Cole and a Clinton impersonator travel from town-to-town in such a quick clip that you might think they were running for national office themselves. Ortiz has trouble with the material as well, feeling that some of it is racist, but like a total pro, he goes out every night and delivers his now almost pitch-perfect Obama. The on stage comedy is a little on the nose, but I think viewers will get a kick out of seeing Ortiz go from the guy who looks like Obama to the guy that could be Obama.
Murdock exhibits some tight pacing and smartly choose the correct scenes and struggles to paint what it’s like for Ortiz the impersonator, and Ortiz the father. Honestly, Hollywood itself couldn’t have crafted a more perfectly sad story and equally deserved triumph. Murdock deftly springs back and forth between the intricacies of being a presidential impersonator and the story of a good man trying to do right by his teenage daughter in a tough world. Seriously, as a work of fiction, it could be a Disney movie called, “My Dad, the Bronx Obama.” In the right hands, it could be a big hit.
Whether or not it would be as touching, or funny, or introspective as the documentary Bronx Obama though is uncertain. As a politico, I love this film, but as someone who’s a sucker for a good underdog story, I love this film even more. It finds just the right balance to be a crowd-pleasing success no matter your political affiliation, feelings about the president, or whether or not you bleed red or blue. Heck, even the angriest of Fox News pundits might see their hearts grow three sizes after watching this film. The real Barack Obama may be having a difficult second term, but the future’s looking bright for his doppelganger from New York’s northern most borough.
On a personal note, when I was in the Hot Docs Industry Centre writing this review, I just so happened to run into Ortiz and Murdock and had a quick conversation with them. I’ve heard a lot about the real President Obama’s charisma, but Ortiz in real life is just as capable and confident as the Barack himself. He is, however, shorter than I thought, which just might be another one of those things that secures his pretend celebrity status.
The journey of Bronx Obama is just as fun and dramatic as the journey of the actual Obama to the White House, except it’s even more of an underdog story.