Talking race with a white boy from Harlem

Ryan Murdock is an Irish-Italian, who made a film about a Puerto Rican man from the Bronx, who looks like the half-black, half-white president of the United States

“I know how to tell stories to white people,” Ryan Murdock tells me in Christiania’s Børneteatret Jazz Club.

“I worked in media, at PBS, which is like, very white. I worked at NPR, which is a pretty white audience. I know I can tell a good story. But this film is reaching lots of non-white people. And it’s great.”

That is perhaps what is so brilliant about Murdock’s new documentary ‘Bronx Obama’. It examines the life of Louis Ortiz, a Puerto-Rican whose life was irreversibly changed when he shaved off his beard, and realised he looked like the most powerful man in the world: President Barack Obama.

Murdock’s cinematic gaze leaves room for Louis Ortiz’s character and humanity to develop and respond to that invisible dialogue that sometimes takes place in discussions of race. It’s transformative and magical. The white gaze, which can make watching documentaries unbearable for many people of colour, is neutralised and the film becomes accessible to all.

The film’s themes are broad, touching everything from poverty, parenting, race, family, character and not least of all authenticity. Its balanced racial gaze would not have been possible without the everyday and stately presence of Louis Ortiz, and the discerning lens of Murdock.

Ryan Murdoch, director of Bronx Obama (Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt)

Ryan Murdoch, director of Bronx Obama (Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt)

First encounter
I’m sitting in Christiania’s Børneteatret next to Ortiz, who is decked out in an oversized red and white baseball shirt, crispy sneakers and red knit hat with the name Obama emblazoned in rhinestones across the front.

“An interesting part of this whole ordeal – I’m calling it an ordeal because it is an ordeal – was when I finally saw the film. I sat down with my fiancé, his wife, Ryan, the baby, newborn, a couple of months old. I think ten minutes in I had to go downstairs and smoke. I was like, what did I just see? My life.”

The club hasn’t opened yet and the DJ is warming up for the evening, spinning Hip Hop classics that get the Bronx native bopping his head to the beat. But the record skips and Ortiz ducks his head, thinking it’s gunfire – a result of growing up in the hood being an Obama impersonator, I suppose.

I turn my attention to Murdock and ask how their relationship started.

“I first met Louis in 2011, shortly after Bin Laden was killed,” Murdock says. “A few months before that, my wife, who is a public defender in the Bronx, came home one day and was like,  ‘Yeah, you know this Obama impersonator got arrested for weed?’ I was like ‘what?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, he showed up in court in his suit’.”

Murdock had to wait until after his wife had completed her defense before he could approach Ortiz. When he did, the fascinating and complex racial dynamics were immediately clear.

“The way Ortiz tells it, is that I’m a white guy who makes a film about a Spanish guy who looks like a black guy. The way I would say it is, an Irish-Italian from Boston made a film about a Puerto Rican guy from the Bronx who looks like a half-black/half-white guy from a lot of different places, who happens to be the president of the United fucking States!” Murdock says laughing.

Louis Ortiz, a Barack Obama impersonator (Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt)

Louis Ortiz, a Barack Obama impersonator (Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt)

A difficult conversation
Murdock learned a lot about race, while making the documentary, particularly that white people don’t talk about race unless they’re discussing non-white people.

The process also made him hyper aware of his own whiteness, and he hopes the film will spark conversations that bring people together, particularly in schools whose textbooks need to include more diversity. He feels changed by the experience of making the film, and thinks that the story of America needs updating to inclue stories of experiences of race.

I ask where he thinks the US is in dealing with racial issues, but Ortiz interjects.

“It’s fucked up,” he says, before returning to his joint. David, an African-American trumpet player from New Orleans who has lived in Copenhagen for the past ten years, jumps in, agreeing with Ortiz.

“I think we’re in a really fucked up place. That’s why I’m here!”

Murdock’s view is that white people are disappointed that Obama didn’t facilitate a conversation of race.

“He hasn’t and maybe he shouldn’t. But the thing is white people don’t know what to do. They’re like, ‘I thought we fixed it. I thought everything was going to be good!’ And now, for lots of other reasons, white people are pissed. And I think white people are going to become dicks again in the next election, and they’re going to want to get a white guy back into office, and I think a lot of people are going to complain and make noise. It’s going to be a difficult, complicated conversation.”

Ortiz and Murdock don’t want to spoil the documentary that has been three years in the making and which was shown this November at CPH:DOX, Copenhagen’s international documentary film festival. Bronx Obama has inspired a real and overdue dialogue about the interconnectedness of race, class and poverty in America, and how this affects everyday Americans, regardless of their background.

Louis Ortiz, a Barack Obama impersonator (Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt)

Louis Ortiz, a Barack Obama impersonator (Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt)

Save that!
Through the process of making the documentary, the men have become firm friends. But during the time, everything needed to take place in front of camera.

“Ryan was invisible while he made the documentary,” Ortiz says. “The only time that we would talk a little bit is when it was time for bed, and you wouldn’t have camera rolling or the mic on and you would be like, ‘no, save that. Don’t talk?'”

“Did I say that?” Murdock asks, incredulously.

“Every time I had something to say you’ be like don’t talk! Tell me that later on camera!”

“But the coolest part,” Ortiz continues, “is when I asked him nonchalantly – I didn’t want to offend him – ‘look, I want to smoke some weed with you’. And Ryan said, ‘I would love to man. I would really, really would love to, but, I kind of made a promise’. And I was like, ‘What? What do you mean you made a promise?’ ‘Until this project is done, I’m not going to smoke weed with you’. And I’m like, okay, I could respect that. Especially after he told me he promised his wife. I totally respect that. But when he showed me the film, the gloves were off.  We’re smoking.”

Ortiz hands Murdock the joint and, taking a drag, says, “Like immediately.” M


By Lesley-Ann Brown

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