For many years Louis Ortiz sported a goatee. The whiskers were something of a reaction to his smooth-face years in the military.
In 2008, at the prompting of a friend, Ortiz shaved it off, and when he looked in the mirror, he saw Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, staring back at him. And that’s not all. “I saw dollar signs,” he says.
The fascinating documentary “Bronx Obama,” airing on Showtime at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday — and already available on several online platforms, including Amazon Instant and iTunes — chronicles Ortiz’s journey to become a successful presidential impersonator.
Directed by Holliston native Ryan Murdock, the 90-minute film is by turns funny and poignant, with several story lines operating simultaneously. It offers insights into the nature of family, show business, politics, and race in America. (The film began life as a piece on “This American Life” and then as a short film for The New York Times.)
From certain angles, Ortiz’s resemblance to Obama is truly uncanny. Even before Ortiz, who is Puerto Rican, begins adding makeup (including a Sharpie mole), hairstyling, and wardrobe to the mix, the smile, the ears, and the slim build are all there. Once he applies the outer accoutrements and begins working on his mimickry, it’s easy to see why at least a few of the people who encounter his Fauxbama believe they’re meeting the genuine article, if just for a few moments.
But the impersonation business is neither easy nor glamorous. As Ortiz goes from small-time gigs — low-rent music videos, hanging with Spider-Man and Smurfette in Times Square for tourists’ tips — to higher-paying jobs — corporate entertainment, conventions, political fund-raisers, even a Japanese film — the money increases only incrementally, the work is erratic, the accommodations sketchy, and it takes him far from his teenage daughter.
Ortiz also begins to feel some of the heavier toll of his artificially darkened skin tone: He jokes with people who have no compunction about using racial slurs, and he performs material that is borderline, and sometimes outright, racist. (Sample joke during a faux debate with Donald Trump and Mitt Romney impersonators: “I need to be reelected because you know how hard it is to throw a black family out of public housing.”) At one point, the exhausted Ortiz, on a seemingly endless minivan tour with an abusive manager, laments, “I don’t know who the hell I am anymore.”
Aware that his fortunes likely rise or fall with a second term for President Obama, Ortiz admits to nerves on Election Night. It’s to Murdock’s credit that even though we know the outcome, there is real tension as Ortiz awaits the news of his — and Obama’s — fate.
As presented by Murdock, Ortiz is a likable and decent guy, funny in his own right, and struggling to turn his impersonation into the realization of his own American Dream.