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Bobi Wine: The People's President

Though it may not be en vogue to say it, some narratives seem hardwired into our collective unconscious mind, and we have an attachment to them almost as vital as our need for water. We might not often invoke her name, but the Cinderella Narrative is at the root of much of our narrative culture. Another omnipresent story is that of David and Goliath. In fictional filmmaking, this story is inescapable, but it has a powerful hold on non-fiction film as well. 

The big difference is that in non-fiction, the outcome is not always predetermined. The stone might miss Goliath’s temple. So the focus shifts to why David decided to pick up his sling, even if his aim may, in the end, falter. 

This applies to the new documentary “Bobi Wine: The People’s President,” directed by Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo. Sharp is a second-generation Ugandan-born Englishman, and Bwayo, who also serves as one of the film’s cinematographers, is Ugandan. For five years, including inevitably the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, they shadowed and filmed the unlikely rise of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu to a place of prominence in Ugandan politics. Kyagulanyi, performing under the name Bobi Wine, is a pop musician whose music (a blend of reggae, dancehall, and Ugandan kidandali) has made him a big name. However, Bobi Wine risks it all when he decides to enter politics, taking a seat in the Ugandan Parliament before deciding to run for president.

The incumbent is Yoweri Museveni, a septuagenarian war hero who took up arms against the infamous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin only to become a de facto dictator himself after losing a presidential election and launching a civil war to take power. Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986. 

The filmmakers construct this documentary as a first-person account of Wine and his formidable wife, Barbie. Their unlikely courtship—a good girl from a middle-class family falling for a musician from the streets with no family to speak of—feels like something out of Old Hollywood. The differences between the two are the secret to this dynamic union, and Wine would probably have never transitioned from pop idol to statesman without her influence and counsel.

All dictators are, to some degree, creatures of the media, and every strongman’s worst nightmare is being challenged by a beloved entertainer. Museveni is threatened by Wine and uses his army and police to go to war with Wine’s National Unity Platform opposition party. Wine is arrested and brutalized, which temporarily forces him into exile as he tries to raise international awareness of Museveni’s abuse of power. 

The documentary balances footage from the news (both Ugandan media and from abroad) with their footage from inside Wine’s inner circle to the violent clashes between Wine’s supporters and the army. The film is in many ways a spiritual sibling to Marshall Curry’s 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary “Street Fight,” which tells the story of (now-) U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s first failed attempt to become the Mayor of Newark as his campaign is smothered by incumbent Sharpe James who ruled Newark in ways strikingly similar to Museveni. 

The differences between “Street Fight” and “Bobi Wine” are telling. Curry narrates the former doc and provides valuable insight into the history of Newark and how Sharpe James went from being part of the post-Civil Rights reformer wave to betraying all the ideals of that movement. Sharp and Bwayo let Bobi and Barbi tell their own story, which is currently one of the preferred modes of non-fiction film storytelling. Wine does convey that Museveni was once his hero, but because the documentary chooses a more participatory-observational approach, we miss a lot of important Ugandan history that provides much-needed context so that we can understand what taking Museveni on means. 

What Sharp and Bwayo do manage to capture in vivid detail is Uganda itself from the high energy of the capital city Kampala to the lush beauty of the northern country. The beauty of the land clashes dramatically with the ugliness of the presidential campaign, which Museveni turns into a civil war in all but name to retain power at any cost. Needless to say, the documentary arrives at a moment when strongman politics are ascending worldwide, even in American national politics.

It will only take a few seconds on Google to tell you how this election ends, but what only the film can do is show you how Bobi Wine evolves into a powerful spokesman for democratic values as he tries to save Uganda from autocracy. This film will undoubtedly inspire others to stand up like Bobi and Barbie, even though “Bobi Wine” is also clear about the cost of putting a stone in your sling. 

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Film Credits

Bobi Wine: The People's President movie poster

Bobi Wine: The People's President (2023)

Rated PG-13 for strong violent content, bloody images and thematic elements.

121 minutes

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