'Bronx Obama' puts the American dream under a microscope

Feb 25, 2014

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Fest.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

The film Bronx Obama has the danger of becoming a novelty act – much like the subject of the film. Louis Ortiz was unemployed when someone at a bar in 2008 told them he looked a lot like that Senator, Barack Obama. When that Senator became President, Ortiz’s life changed.

Ortiz decides to try to turn his look into cash, and then into a career, at least while it lasts. The film Bronx Obama goes beyond the “gee whiz” aspect of Ortiz’s story. Director Ryan Murdock shows how Ortiz’s re-invention of himself affects his life, his family and his psyche.

Dedicated listeners may remember that Murdock produced a radio story for This American Life about Ortiz in early 2012. Murdock was actually already working on the documentary when he pitched it as a radio piece.

“The This American Life story is kind of Act 1, I guess. It’s sort of the initial rise and fall, sort of the discovery of this superpower,” Murdock said.

I interviewed Murdock about the film, which follows Ortiz as he joins a team of political impersonators that travel the country during the 2012 election, in a sort of parallel tour of comedy shows across the country. Ortiz worked under a heavy-handed manager, which created a lot of tension in the film.

He can be treated like a puppet sometimes. That’s hard to watch sometimes, but I think there’s a lot of meaning there. I hope the film conveys that. He makes some decision that, you know, I’m not sure I would have made… and as a director my job is to present that decision and not judge that decision and I feel like that was sometimes tough.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

I think it’s a funny documentary, which is somewhat rare, I mean it’s not beating you over the head with a message… But I think there’s something unique, and Louis says it in the film. You know, ‘If you woke up one day and looked like the most powerful person in the world wouldn’t you do what I’m doing?’ It’s kind of like being hit by lightning. I mean, I guess I’d be curious if people felt like, ‘wow, if this happened to me would I do this’? I don’t know. I wonder that myself.

A couple times in the film Louis says something like “I miss being myself,” why is that important to the film?

You know, Obama is the American dream. His story is sort of the quintessential American dream story, but I think there’s something about the American dream that involves reinventing yourself. A lot of time the American dream means you give up your old identity and assume a new one and that comes with benefits…. So I feel like that is a big questions, would you get rid of your identity to create a better life?