From the Ground Up

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama Documentary Screens at the Shell.

“Sorry,” a security guard said, “no professional cameras allowed.” He pointed at my semi-professional-if-only-in-looks camera looped around my neck. He was an unusually large man, built, as the saying goes, like a brick house.

“Oh,” I said, confused. “But I’m with the media.”

“Check with the other entrance,” he said, hoisting an index finger the size of my arm towards the far end of the lot. I glanced in the direction to which he pointed, and it was so far down the sidewalk it seemed peopled by ants.

My friend and I trudged toward this other entrance only to discover another entryway, midway, flanked by a man and a woman, both uniformed. This time I pretended to know the protocol: I was on assignment for Flux Hawaii, and my name was on The List.

“No, we don’t have any lists,” said the woman, apathetically unimpressed by my pompous ruse. “Check down at the other entrance.” She, too, pointed towards this mythical media entrance, still a substantial distance away. We weren’t getting into this event any time soon.

This, I thought, must’ve been what Barack Obama felt like during his long and arduous path towards the presidency: constantly being told no, no, no, and yet pushing forward, saying yes we can, yes we will. (Yes, I know that comparing my minor inconvenience to Obama’s odyssey to the Oval Office is insanely ridiculous, but it made for a great segue, no?) Obama’s journey from relative obscurity to political superstardom was, quite fittingly, the subject of HBO’s newest documentary, presented last Thursday by HBO, Oceanic Time Warner Cable and the City & County of Honolulu at the Waikiki Shell. (Yes, we finally got into this free event).

Before I go on, I have to admit that I’m a film buff with a particular penchant for documentaries, and since HBO produced Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” one of my favorite docs of all time, I had high–perhaps too high–hopes for this movie.

“By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” is a steadied, chronological account of Obama’s campaign for the White House, one which pairs behind-the-scenes footage of Obama and his team with news media clips from the early days up until his ascendance to the Presidency. Peppered throughout are interviews with the public, ranging from hopefully optimistic to blatantly racist (“I do not want a black man running my country,” says one interviewee). There’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before, and it is perhaps for this reason that the documentary feels less revelatory than run-of-the-mill.

There are seeds, though, of a great documentary here. Jon Favreau, Obama’s speechwriter, is a fascinating character. He’s unbelievably young–at 28, he’s the Director of Speechwriting for President Obama–and his short time on screen is at once funny and insightful. (I would love to see a documentary on the speechwriting process, from Obama’s initial thoughts on the structure of a speech, to Favreau’s rough drafts, to bouncing ideas off of the other speechwriters to the final oration).

Interesting, too, are the moments when Malia Ann and Natasha, the Obama daughters, speak about their father, and their wish to spend more time with him. Michelle Obama’s moments in the film, including her thoughts on her husband and family life, not to mention seeing her chatting, laughing, pondering, are equally intriguing.

By far the biggest surprise is the section of the film devoted to the Iowa caucuses, the mechanics of which I had no idea until this film. It’s the exact opposite of primary elections in that people gather in a church, a school, a cafeteria, and basically stand next to the candidate’s name for whom they will vote. The undecided are strongly encouraged by their peers to join them and their candidate. There are no secret ballots like in primaries; debates ensue, so does a bit of proselytizing. It is, to paraphrase Robert Gibbs, democracy in action.

Although problematic at points, “By the People” demonstrates the effectiveness of Obama’s grassroots campaign for change, and how Obama and his team catalyzed a nation so totally disillusioned by the shenanigans and devastating policies promulgated by the Bush Administration. As President Obama approaches his one-year mark, the big question is this: “Is he following through on the promises he made during his campaign?” Judging by Obama’s central domestic policy, Health Care Reform, he’s doing a bang-up job, with both houses of Congress introducing their versions of this crucial piece of legislation. So far, so good.

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