The most remarkable thing about By the People: The Election of Barack Obama is the candidate himself. Obama came out of nowhere in the summer of 2004 to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Within a few months he would win a US Senate seat. When he addressed the convention four years later, he was the party’s nominee. Then he won the presidency. How did this happen?
The trajectory of Obama’s meteoric rise to power would make for a great documentary—unfortunately By the People isn’t it. In order to make sense of this film, one needs to understand its subject. Obama is a detached liberal intellectual with a self-deprecating sense of humor, very much in the mold of JFK. On the campaign trail he’s chatty and disarming, more like Bill Clinton. It’s Obama’s ability to deliver a thundering speech, his voice rising and falling with the cadence and power of Martin Luther King, however, that sets him apart from other candidates.
Obama’s oratorical gifts should provide the dramatic strength of By the People, yet there’s precious little footage of Obama’s rousing stump speeches. Instead, the story is told from the point-of-view of Obama’s army of volunteers, as the filmmakers visit campaign offices in several battleground states.
This point of view has some value, but it cripples the film at signature moments. Obama’s stunning win in the Iowa primary was capped by his electrifying victory speech. Yet this dramatic moment gets only a few seconds in the documentary. The directors (Amy Rice and Alicia Sams) are more interested in the reactions of Obama’s ground troops at Iowa’s campaign headquarters.
One scene features a poised nine-year-old working on the Obama phone banks as he makes a cold-call to a voter: “Hi Barbara, I’m Lorenzo. I’m nine-years-old and a volunteer for the Obama campaign. How are you? Who’s Diana? Not Diana, Obama. Barack Obama is running for President… of the United States of America (at this point Lorenzo slaps his forehead and rolls his eyes). OK, hope you have a wonderful day.”
Back on the campaign trail, the fallout over Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon has wounded the candidate. Obama seizes the moment to address the larger issue of race relations in America. Obama’s ‘Race Speech’, another pivotal campaign moment, is discussed on film by campaign strategists but barely shown. As we glimpse the campaign through this narrow point of view, nothing comes alive and everything seems secondhand.
For Americans who didn’t follow the 2008 campaign, or for foreign viewers looking for a summary of an historical American election, By the People will be a frustrating viewing experience. Imagine a documentary about JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign that skipped his stump speeches and ignored the Nixon debates.
I witnessed Obama on the campaign trail first-hand in Springfield, Missouri the weekend before the election. He spoke at a high school football stadium that seated 5,000 people and 40,000 people showed up. When the bleachers were full, the crowd spilled out onto the field. Obama’s speech that night resonated with power as he boldly offered a different vision of America. The film shows a clip of Obama on the stump on that final weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, right after the death of his grandmother. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Obama renders this moment:
This is a bittersweet time for me… my grandmother passed away this morning… she’s gone home. Her name was Madelyn Dunham, and she was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America. They’re not famous, their names aren’t in the newspapers, but each and every day they work hard, look after their families, and sacrifice for their children and grandchildren. In this crowd… there are a lot of quiet heroes. That’s what America is about, and that’s what we’re fighting for.
One wonders why there aren’t more moments like this in the documentary. Another memorable scene is on election night, minutes after Obama wins the presidency. Obama’s top aides, David Axelrod and David Plouffe step out of a hotel elevator, both men are clearly exhausted. As these two middle-aged white guys walk through the lobby, the hotel staff, all of them black, break into wild applause and cheers. It’s a spontaneous moment of genuine goodwill and it epitomizes Obama’s campaign: an old wound has been partially healed — the horrible rift between whites and blacks in America has closed just a bit, and it’s a wonderful moment.
Yet as I write this, the right-wing backlash has already begun. Obama Nation is turning into Tea Party Nation, fueled by white rage. Recent right-wing disasters like Iraq and Katrina are already forgotten. As Gore Vidal once said, “We live in the United States of Amnesia”. It remains to be seen whether By the People becomes an artifact from a false spring in America, when it seemed that the election of the first black president represented a new beginning in American politics.
The DVD’s extras include several deleted scenes that would have improved the film, including an excerpt of Obama’s nomination speech as well as his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.