‘Bobi Wine: The People’s President’ Review: A Daring Document of Resistance

The Oscar-nominated documentary shows the violence of Uganda's 35-year political regime, but, more importantly, it tells the story of the politician who's come closest to ending it.

Bobi Wine campaigns ahead of the 2021 Ugandan election. Lookman Kampala

In 2017, African music star Bobi Wine decided to run for his local parliamentary seat and won; in 2023, he’s the face of Uganda’s National Unity Platform and the figurehead of the opposition to the country’s autocratic president, Yoweri Museveni. The Oscar-nominated Bobi Wine: The People’s President—which is already streaming but returns to theaters this weekend ahead of the Academy Awards—tracks this unlikely but inspiring trajectory, one that speaks to an unshakeable faith in freedom and humanity despite the atrocities we inflict upon one another.

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Directed by: Christopher Sharp, Moses Bwayo
Starring: Bobi Wine, Barbie Kyagulanyi
Running time: 114 mins.

Bobi Wine (whose full name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) embodies an aspirational story when the documentary crew’s cameras first find him—he’s a successful musician who focuses his lyrics on the plight of many Ugandans, having come from the ghetto and knowing poverty and instability firsthand. Earlier footage from the mid-’10s finds him making music videos in these communities, people of all ages flocking to him and singing along. When he eventually decides to kick off his political career in 2017, it’s no surprise that he and his message of justice win support. The power of Bobi’s charisma and positivity radiates through the screen—this is a man who unerringly believes in the potential of the political process, and it clearly resonates with his people.

Bobi Wine campaigns during the 2021 presidential election. Lookman Kampala

Once in office, though, Bobi faces an uphill battle. President Museveni has gone from a revolutionary (one who Bobi ruefully says was once his favorite) to a dictator in everything but name. He’s held onto power since 1986, and Bobi enters Parliament as Museveni tries to pass a new amendment to remove the constitution’s presidential age limit and secure another term. It’s here that Bobi’s political passion really kicks off, as he makes songs about protecting Uganda’s constitution, calling rallies and attracting countless supporters. Though the vote doesn’t go his way, it only encourages him to make more noise. The following months find him traveling in support of opposition politicians and platforms across the country, and while he draws in plenty of people sick of the establishment, he also draws the ire of those in power.

It’s fascinating to see someone become a leader and a symbol in real time, which is what happens to Bobi after his rallies and protests end in army-led attacks and arrests. Though the film touches on the state-sponsored violence against dissenters before this point, it becomes devastatingly real once Bobi leads the charge. A pool of blood on the street clues you into how desperate and violent things are about to get, as Bobi’s driver is shot and killed while he ends up being arrested and placed in a military prison.

In moments like these, when the filmmakers can’t get to their subject, they let news footage and recordings from a few daring individuals do the talking. Bobi’s prison stint starts a vicious cycle wherein the Museveni regime attacks, accuses, and arrests him and his fellow opposition party members, the people protest in the street, and the army beats them down. The footage of this is always shocking, always devastating. 

Bobi Wine in a police arrest van after he was arrested in Luuka district, Eastern Uganda, and later charged with spreading COVID-19, November 18, 2020. Lookman Kampala

The change in Bobi after his arrest and torture is chilling, but the obvious abuse he suffered doesn’t stop him from running for president in what will end up being a fraudulent election. His campaign is marred by more state violence and arrests, one of which sparks nationwide protests that end with more than 50 dead at the hands of the army. It’s brutal, awful business, but, significantly, it doesn’t stop Bobi and his supporters.

Bobi Wine: The People’s President tracks this ongoing grassroots revolution, though it does so without a tight grip on its timeline. The film spends equal (or less) time on a span of months as it does a handful of days, without making that difference clear. The run up to the 2021 election feels especially unmoored, with one glaring error in the dates throwing off the significance of the moment. There are beats that lack context, related to both the film itself and the greater Ugandan political process. The man and the mission at the movie’s center are all but unimpeachable, but the story that’s crafted around them has its fair share of holes.

A quick internet search can fill you in on the details after the documentary concludes, and though not much has changed, Bobi Wine: The People’s President serves as a vital testament to what film can do and what it can represent. Barbie Kyagulanyi, Bobi’s wife and fellow political activist, has called the cameras “a bulletproof jacket” for their family and their movement: “Whatever was going to happen there, we would have it recorded. And then at least we would know exactly how whatever happened, happened.” The power of the camera is evident as the documentary progresses, with videos shot by protesters and sympathizers increasingly stoking the anger of the regime. One harrowing moment finds a woman recording army officers march in the street below her office; one of the men looks up, stares at her, and shoots—the faceless woman moves away just in time. Ugandan director Moses Bwayo was beaten, shot, and arrested over the course of filming; he’s now seeking asylum in the U.S. 

The violence captured on camera is hard to watch, but the significance of it being on camera and broadcast across the world is a major win for Bobi and his party. The footage is daring, dangerous filmmaking, and though it shows some of humanity’s lowest impulses, Bobi’s ultimate message of optimism for Uganda’s future shines through.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Bobi Wine: The People’s President’ Review: A Daring Document of Resistance