By the People: The Election of Barack Obama

Imagine a documentary about JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign that skipped his stump speeches and ignored the Nixon debates.

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama

Director: Amy Rice and Alicia Sams
Cast: Barack Obama, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Michelle Obama
Distributor: HBO
Rated: Not Rated
Year: 2010
Release date: 2010-01-12

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.