We sat down with Louis Ortiz, the 45-year-old Puerto Rican Barack Obama impersonator and star of the forthcoming documentary <I>Bronx Obama</i>, about performing for Republican crowds and the time he tried to hustle French Montana out of $250.
Imagine waking up one day to discover that you look so much like one of the world’s most famous faces and that there may be job opportunities and fame waiting for you—if you play your cards right. That’s what happened to an unemployed 45-year-old Puerto Rican man in the Bronx named Louis Ortiz, whose striking resemblance to President Barack Obama is so uncanny, he began getting used to being stopped and approached for pictures with strangers on the street in early 2008.
A deluge friends and acquaintances began badgering Louis about his likeness to the president almost immediately. He began to mold himself into a convincing Barack Obama mimic. Not long after that, a mutual friend connected him to filmmaker Ryan Murdock, who started work on a documentary about Louis and his life. It didn’t take long for major media outlets to come knocking. In early 2012, This American Life devoted 40 minutes of a particularly memorable episode to Ortiz and Murdock. At the end of the year, the New York Times website presented an op-doc that excerpted the resulting documentary: Bronx Obama.
Bronx Obama is an intricate and compelling documentary that deftly weaves together multiple narrative layers—the American Dream, surrealism, fatherhood, race relations, celebrity—while following Louis as Obama on tour with Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney impersonators, and a pernicious manager named Dustin (who, it turns out, has ties to hate groups) who hired a comedy writer to produce material that scrapes the bottom barrel of race-baiting humour (Donald Trump impersonator: “What are you going to do to create jobs in the inner cities?” Ortiz as Obama: “Nothing, Donald. Come on, man—you think I’m going to get my supporters to vote for me by telling them they’ve gotta work?”), as they perform shows for libertarian conventions and Republican boosters eager to see the President portrayed as a smarmy buffoon. Another captivating component of the film is Louis’s complex relationship with his teenage daughter, Reina, a hyper-intelligent 16 year-old high school basketball star who lives 1,158 miles away in Florida.
When I meet Ryan and Louis for brunch in a downtown Toronto restaurant, Louis’s similarity to the 44th president of the United States is almost disturbing: He possesses Barack’s congenial smile, slender build, substantial ears, and even has a similarly located mole (it’s Sharpied on, but convincing nonetheless). He speaks with a heavy Bronx accent and demeanor that is part seen-it-all street veteran and part reserved paternal figure.
During our 90-minute conversation, steady streams of excited onlookers eager to pose for a picture with “the president” interrupt us. No bystander interaction tops the one we share with our waitress, a buoyant young woman in her early 20s who is so taken aback by Louis’s likeness to the president that she appears faint. “I’m serving the president!” she says, wonder palpable in her voice before rushing to the kitchen. Louis, Ryan, and I have a brief debate about whether or not she actually believes he’s the president, before deciding that she was most likely playing along. Five minutes later, when our waitress returns, she approaches us with a facial expression that falls somewhere between confused and skeptical. “Wait, that’s not actually the president,” she says, mistrustfully, before we explain who Louis is and why we’re meeting.
VICE: Does that happen often?
Ryan Murdock: That thing only happens sometimes. I’ve only seen it like three times.
Ryan: Yeah, where someone was convinced for an extended amount of time. It’s funny because you want to believe that it’s what you think it is.
Louis Ortiz: The funny thing is that it’s fun for them to believe it, but for me, I wouldn’t want to walk anywhere and say, “I’m Barack Obama.” You feel like you’re tricking them. It just doesn’t feel right. So I try to be up front.
After watching the movie, it’s clear that your manager, Dustin, had you doing a lot of the material as Barack that was—in your own words—“a little racist.” Did you feel a responsibility to do or not do certain jokes because of the tone?
Louis: I put up with a lot on that tour—a lot more than is in the movie. He [motions to Ryan] just didn’t catch a lot of it.
Ryan: Hey now, give me some credit.
Louis: I walked away from that manager three times because of the racist material and pressure he was putting on me. The third time was the final time—I could not continue. All of that happened in a six-month period. He was promising me the world. He made it seem like there was no other guy who could guide me. It was a job, and I had to do what I had to do. Still, every time I walked away I was hoping that I would stay away, but he would come back promising and apologizing and convincing me, so I would go back and be like, Damn, I know this guy’s the truth. This guy’s the truth. But then, again, things would happen and I would walk away again, but every time I walked away I walked away with some new knowledge—I learned where the money’s at, I learned certain things about marketing, I learned how to tweak myself to be more commercial. So I think I had enough with the third time to say, “I learned enough. This is it—I’m done.” I got a new comedy writer and I have new stuff going on. I wouldn’t even blame my original comedy writer. It was my former manager who specifically asked for that type of race-baiting material, and I think the comedy writer had a problem with it too.
Did you know Dustin had a background with hate groups?
Louis: No. We had no idea; we only found out afterwards.
You guys played to pretty right-wing crowds.
Louis: Dustin wouldn’t go searching for events for Democrats. He would go searching for things Republican meet-ups and libertarian conventions because that’s where the money’s at. And the kind of material we had to give them was pretty racist. I was brainwashed.
There’s this one joke that you told that goes something like, “I need to be reelected because you know how hard it is to get black people out of public housing.” It was pretty enraging.
Louis: I know, I know.
Ryan: It feels unfair to slam the audience too much because, in a way, they don’t know what they’re getting. They know it’s “presidential comedy” or whatever, and they’re complicit in the laughter part, but I think it’s very different in a group. This is our fourth festival showing the film, and sometimes there are laughs at that joke, and I don’t know if the laughs are a result of people being uncomfortable—but it happens.
Louis, did you grow up around a lot of black people?
Louis: Yeah, blacks and hispanics. When I joined the army at 17, then came the white people. So I had to learn how to hang out, drink beer, and eat pizza with white people. [Laughs]
I mean, I got a little racism here, and there but it was nothing like the way I feel it now that I “look like a black guy.” So the way me and my boys—black and Puerto Rican—said it in the 'hood was different. We use the N-word in a very different way. Then, when looking like I’m looking, and you get it from an obviously racist person, it feels totally different. It feels like I can actually relate now. Before you might be able to say, “Oh yeah, I understand.” Motherfuckers really don’t understand what it’s like to be called the N-word until you hear it from someone who has racial rage behind it. And I know I’m not a full black man, but I represent that half-black and half-white president. So now I feel it, because I know why it’s coming at me the way it’s coming at me. It’s weird.
Ryan, is it weird to be a white guy parachuting into these complex conversations with Louis about race?
Ryan: I’m a white guy making a film about a Puerto Rican guy who impersonates the first black president. Things are definitely weird!
That couldn’t be any more “2014.”
Ryan: That’s America right now. I think it’s very easy to get caught up in “Is it OK to laugh at this? What is OK to laugh at?”
How did Reina feel about being on camera?
Louis: My impression is that it was uncomfortable for her. But she did it. Ryan’s a great documentarian. He dealt with Reina in a special, personalized way that was different from the special, personalized way that he dealt with me. It’s what allowed us to open up so much to him personally and on camera.
How does she feel about her father being this sort of famous Barack Obama impersonator?
Louis: I don’t think she makes it a big deal to her friends. She’s actually sort of shy about it. She’s very, very calm and collected—no boasting, no bragging. No matter what I tell her I do, she goes, “Oh, dad. That’s cool.”
She just graduated high school and received a few scholarships to different schools for college.
That’s amazing, congratulations. Is your family political at all?
Louis: I try not to be. My mom was always a Democrat with a union job. Maybe I’ll go Republican if I get rich, maybe not. It all depends.
You seem eager to find out.
Louis: I really do believe in Democratic policies, though. [Speaking through his Obama impression] You see there’s a book, now the book is called The M. Now among other things, the book claims I’m practicing Muslim. That’s just not true. I’ve been a Muslim for over 50 years; I don’t need any more of practice. [laughs]
That was just one of those jokes that the Republican crowds loved.
I can see why. One of the best moments in the film to me is when Obama wins the 2008 election and people are freaking out on the streets of New York. What was it like being there when that happened?
Louis: It was great. It felt like we landed on the moon. It was like the Cold War was over. It was something big—really big. It was like the Berlin Wall just came down. It was history, and we were living in it. For me, it was a little extra special because I was going to play the guy that everyone was celebrating.
My street name back in the days—and people still remember me as it—is Louis Balls. It’s actually tatted on my back. I used to wear these big beads around my neck. I was in an Afrocentric state of mind back then. I danced to house music with the mushroom hair and cargo pants and the crazy polka-dot shirts. Even though I’m Puerto Rican, I really thought I was fully black. The name started back then, and then with the crazy stuff that I used to do people thought: Wow, you’ve really got some set of balls.
A well-earned street name must be a souce of pride.
That’s how it all started for me. It feels like the name holds weight again because to do this whole thing I’m doing it does take balls. It really does. Everything happened for a reason. People are called certain things for a reason.
You’re in French Montana’s “Choppa Choppa Down” video.
Louis: Yeah, the one that was playing on VH1, MTV, and FUSE.
There’s a scene in Bronx Obama that follows you to that shoot and it seems like French Montana doesn’t want to pay you.
Louis: No, you know what it is—music videos don’t pay a lot—especially if you’re not one of the primary stars of the video. They pay a couple of hundred bucks. The normal rate for something like that is $200 or $300—I was trying to get $500.
Yeah, you know. I didn’t want to go into haggling with them, so I said I’d go half way: Give me $250 and I’m good.
What are you hoping happens in the next two or three years? I know you want to meet Obama but haven’t yet.
Louis: Yeah, I want to meet Obama. I would love to just keep working, specifically the corporate events—that’s where the big money’s at. I’m hoping that Hollywood comes knocking. I’m looking for the bright lights.
Bronx Obama is screening next at the American Film Institute’s AFIDocs showcase in Washington, DC on June 21 at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, then on June 22 at the Silver Spring Theater. To learn more about the film, visit www.bronxobamamovie.com
Follow Jordan Sowunmi on Twitter.