When Louis Ortiz shaved off his goatee one day in 2008, his life changed forever. He looked in the mirror and he didn’t see himself – a middle-aged, unemployed Puerto Rican father from the Bronx. He saw the face of change, of hope… of money. ‘Bronx Obama‘ tells the strange and improbable tale of a Barack Obama impersonator who tries to cash in on the “look of a lifetime” and chases a fevered American dream from opportunity to oblivion.
Filmmaker Ryan Murdock’s debut feature film has been in the making for nearly 3 years, as he intimately documented Mr. Ortiz’s transformation during Obama’s first term and the 2012 election season. The 90-minute feature documentary introduces a host of characters: a manager who pushes Louis hard to “become Obama,” a seasoned “Bill Clinton” who dispenses advice, and a hard-working “Mitt Romney” who bets it all on his newfound career. Murdock captures unexpectedly hilarious moments along this Twilight-Zone-esque campaign trail while delving deep into the question of what it means to be someone you’re not.
David Teich spoke to Murdock about Louis’s incredible transformation, the ways that modern media affects how politicians are depicted in popular culture, and much more.
“Bronx Obama” Is Now Airing on Showtime, and Is Available on iTunes, Vimeo, Amazon Instant Video and Other Digital Platforms. Learn More – Here
How did you become interested in Louis Ortiz’s story, and how did you go about approaching him?
A friend of mine had met Lou and told me about it: “I met this Obama impersonator in the Bronx.” I thought that sounded like a funny thing to be. So I called [Louis] up and asked him about his experiences, and he said, “Dude, I live in the twilight zone. I’d love to talk to someone about it.” I think a lot of his friends didn’t understand that he was this fish out of water, just pulled from the middle of the Bronx and then plopped into all these random, weird situations, where he’s traveling the world and meeting people and being treated like the president…And he was eager to talk about it, because it was complicated for him, emotionally and psychologically.
What was your first meeting with Louis like, and how receptive was he at first to the idea of you filming him?
The first time we met happened to be a couple days after Bin Laden was killed. When I went up to the Bronx to have lunch with [Louis], he was wearing this shirt that said, “Mission Accomplished,” with Obama photoshopped with two thumbs up. I thought it was hilarious. And we were walking around, and people we re going, “Yo, Obama, you got him man!” And Louis would be like, “One shot one kill!” And I thought, “This dynamic is really complicated. And this guy’s really funny.” Very quickly I knew I loved this as a story…So I just sort of said, “Can I follow you to some of your gigs, just kind of hang out and film some stuff?” And he was okay with that. So we started off with just the gigs. And then I asked if I could film at his house. It was this slow process of gaining trust, and just kind of being there.
Was he okay with you filming for as long as you did?
A few months into filming, Louis asked me, “Are you done yet?” But I knew that the 2012 election year was coming up, so I sort of reframed my initial proposition: “I think I can make something longer out of this, and follow your story over the next year.” And he was excited about that, though he was a little bit hesitant. He’d had some bad experiences with this job, and that made him reluctant.
How well has Louis been paid for impersonating Obama?
Financially it’s kind of a mixed bag. The money kind of comes in waves. Some people want to pay him a lot of money, others want him to do the same work and pay him nothing.
As we see in the movie, Louis is a widower, and he left his daughter to live with his parents in Florida while he went on his comedy tour. Was it easy for you to get him to open up about his personal life?
The early footage that I got was mostly just him in character. He thought that’s all I wanted. But then there was a change. He went down to Florida to visit his daughter. I’d known a little bit about their relationship. He had mentioned her. And I was interested. I asked if I could go with him. So I went down to Florida for a few days with him, and met his parents and his daughter, and that was a pivotal moment in our relationship, where I think he realized I was trying to do more than something gimmicky.
Was it hard for him to be another person all the time, while also trying to hold onto his own identity?
Yeah, very much so. I think what’s fascinating about Louis is the question of whether you see can see through the image to the person. Because the image is so powerful that it totally masks the person behind it…In the film, he has these moments where he’s been in character for a long time, and he’s like, “Ugh, I just want to be Louis.” I think it’s in some ways a tension he lives with every day. Before this Obama thing, he was kind of in the dumps, he was out of work, and wasn’t really happy with the way his life was going. Now it’s like, if he’s always Obama, he’s always in the spotlight. The suit he wears is almost like a superhero suit. He can put it on and basically do whatever he wants, because people treat him like the president. They’ll buy him drinks, or they’ll buy him dinner. But then without the suit, he’s just Louis. We just got back from Norway, where he was on the front page of newspapers. The spectacle of it, especially with the film coming out now, is just so big. But then he goes home to his one-bedroom apartment, and he’s just a regular guy. It’s a very bipolar existence.
When people treat Louis like a celebrity, do you think they view it as a way to symbolically cozy up to the real Obama?
I think Obama himself is a really interesting collision of celebrity and real power. Our culture’s obsessed with celebrity, and people will kind of do anything to grab onto it in some way. That’s where I found Louis’s story interesting: He wasn’t really seeking it out. It was like getting hit by lightning. It just sort of happened to him. And if you hang out with him now, it’s funny—people see the resemblance, and maybe a quarter of the time they’re like, “Oh, you’re that guy from the Bronx who looks like Obama.” They know enough about his own story that he’s weirdly famous as the Bronx Obama.
In the film, Louis comes across as an Obama supporter. But he tells some racially charged jokes as part of his comedy act, which is heavily geared toward libertarian and Republican audiences. There’s one joke where “Obama” says that it will be very hard to defeat him for reelection, because everyone knows it’s hard to kick a black family out of public housing. Was Louis ever conflicted about telling these kinds of jokes, especially when he himself took offense at their sentiments?
People have asked him to do a lot of weird stuff, and he’s very much conflicted about some of the humor, which is offensive to a lot of people. When I asked him about that, he tried to justify it by saying that it’s just comedy, and any interesting comedy always kind of walks that razor’s edge between being offensive and being hilarious. But context matters. I think it’s obvious that we’re not in a post-racial America, and that we’re only just starting to figure out how to talk about race in a constructive way. Louis ends up telling these jokes that are disparaging to Obama, because that’s where the money is, because white people think that’s funny. I mean, a Puerto Rican guy is making that joke about an African America president to a white audience. If it’s Richard Pryor telling that joke to a black audience, I think that’s very different. It still plays on bad stereotypes, but I think that humor works in social groups, and if you’re laughing at one social group from another one, that’s a problem. Now that Louis hasn’t been doing that for a while, and he doesn’t work with the same producer anymore, I think he’s really come to see it as something he doesn’t want to do, and in some ways maybe regrets it.
Speaking of Dustin Gold, the producer who managed Louis’s comedy tour, he’s a very strong presence in the film, and is often very cruel to Louis, particularly when he feels Louis isn’t working hard enough. What are your feelings about Gold?
Look, I think he did a lot of good for Louis. He’s a smart guy who understands the business and understands the performance aspect of it. And I think Louis is thankful for that. [Gold] came into the film, and I thought, “This is what Louis needs, a person to push him and to give him the right guidance.” And I think that did happen. But I also think [Gold] sometimes pushes people too far, and I think he said some really mean-spirited things to Louis and sometimes treated him poorly. I do wonder whether he would have behaved the same way in front of me if I was, say, a Puerto Rican filmmaker. I think that since I’m a white a guy, he felt like he could say some of the mean things that he said, like I was in on the joke or something.
How does the current state of media affects the ways that Obama is depicted in popular culture?
Obama has basically been the only president to preside over the era of Instagram and Facebook. That stuff was around during Bush, but it was at nowhere near the sort of volume that it’s at now. So in the film, you see a lot of moments where your only experience of Obama is through images and representation in the media. And it becomes this weird contortion of who Obama really is and what he stands for. In this day and age, people consume media in all different kinds of ways. And so the way in which Obama is represented is super complicated. Obama was elected at a time when digital images just exploded in growth, and the way we use images has completely changed in the Obama years. Maybe it’s an accident, or maybe there’s a causal relationship—I don’t know. If you just search the hashtag #Obama on Instagram, you see the craziest stuff. Lately I’ve been seeing graphics that say things like “Barack Ebola.” And they show contorted images of Obama’s face, with text like, “he’s the reason why Ebola’s in this country, because he’s African.” I think we’re in an era where we reuse and recontextualize images all the time, and Obama is sort of the central image…America’s trying to figure out what his image means.
Throughout the film, you intercut Louis’s story with TV and audio clips of Obama’s real speeches, which include frequent references to the American Dream of becoming successful and self-sufficient. Do those speeches reflect Louis’s own story?
Yeah, that was very much intentional. Very early on, I made a couple of rules. One was, “See Louis, hear Obama.” The other was, “See Obama, hear Louis.” In other words, there’s a sort of interplay between the image and the voice. We could use [the real] Obama as [Louis’s] internal monologue. Louis was studying these speeches, and was learning the superficial aspects of Obama—but there’s no way he wasn’t also internalizing the meaning of what Obama was saying. I don’t think Louis was a political person at all before this, and I still don’t think he loves politics, but now he’s connected to it in a way that’s really fascinating to watch.
And before Louis happened into his Obama gig, he was trying to pull himself out of poverty. So what does his story have to say about the American Dream that Obama talks about?
Obama is like the cheerleader of the American Dream. And it’s a big question whether the American Dreams still exists as we used to think of it in the ‘50s, when it was like, “Well shit, we just won a war, and we’ve got tons of money, and everybody has jobs and, everything’s great.” I think in a lot of ways the American Dream is a bit of an illusion. Louis has had some success, but the media tends to portray it as, “Oh, he’s making bank, and it’s a rags-to-riches story.” I think that’s a little overblown. He still lives in a small one-bedroom in the Bronx. I mean, unemployment’s down, and I think Obama’s done a great job with the economy, but there’s an element of the American dream that’s just straight-up unrealistic. And I think it’s perceived as anti-American to admit that. I’m oversimplifying—and maybe it’s a critique of capitalism more than anything else—but it’s not sustainable to have this idea that everybody can go to the best colleges and everybody can get their dream job. I think people can move up the socioeconomic ladder in small ways, but it’s crowded. For every person who’s trying to move up, there’s a million ahead of them and a million behind them.
Louis has clearly worked extremely hard, but he never would have gotten this new gig without that first bit of luck—looking like the president. Some people don’t have any luck, and get lost in the system completely.
I think a less cynical way to look at the American Dream is this: You take the cards you’re dealt and play your best hand. I think that’s what Louis is trying to do. This thing landed in his lap, and maybe he is in over his head sometimes, but he’s trying to do the best he can. And that’s in some ways all you can really do—whatever situation you’re in, you just try to figure out how to make the most of it.
— Interview conducted and edited by David Teich