Sunday, February 12, 2017

Film Review: The Obama Years: The Power of Words

"The Obama Years: The Power of Words"  *** (out of ****)

Words. Words are important. Words have meaning. Words shape our view of history and our vision of the future. Words are what the documentary “The Obama Years: The Power of Words” (2017) is about.

Scheduled to air on the Smithsonian channel on February 27th, as part of Black History month, this hour-long documentary focuses on a select few, of the more than 3,500, speeches former President Barack Obama gave during his eight years in the White House.

“The Obama Years” is by no means a definitive look at the Obama presidency. It does not offer a critical view or even a balanced tone. It is, without compromise, a full-fledged endorsement of the man and his oratorical skills.

Through the course of the documentary, seven speeches (the press kit says six but I counted seven) are presented and their historical significance explained. They include Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, where he gave the keynote speech. At the time, he was a state senator, who was running for the Illinois U.S. senate seat. The speech brought him national prominence. One anecdote told is the party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry, liked a passage so much from the speech, he asked if he could use it instead of Obama. The other speeches discussed are Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, his first “race speech”, during the presidential campaign, when the news media was reporting on remarks made by Rev. Jerimiah Wright, the President’s eulogy after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, the 50th anniversary speech on the civil rights march in Selma and the eulogy after the 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The “seventh” speech highlighted is his 2011 speech at the White House Correspondence Dinner, showcasing the president’s sense of humor.

It can be considered a strange topic for a documentary on a president, speeches. Why not one which takes us inside the White House and shows us key decisions made during his two terms like the killing of Osama bin Laden, his Supreme Court nominees and a behind-the-scenes look at how the Affordable Care Act came to be? But, you can’t fault the documentary for something it doesn’t want to be. You can only review it on what it is and how well it presents its ideas.

With that in mind, one must admit “The Obama Years” is an entertaining and emotional (I heard a few sniffles at the press screening I attended) look at the country’s first black president. You also become aware of how much history we have all lived through during the past eight years and how much the country has changed from the time Obama first ran for office. It also cannot escape anyone’s mind the difference between Obama and the current man in the White House, at least as far as their communication and speech making skills are concerned.

The documentary is highlighted by on-screen interviews given by the people who worked on Obama’s campaign; David Axelrod, Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan as well as historians; Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who attempt to flesh out the man by discussing Obama’s writing style and comparing it to other presidents. 

Unfortunately, as with most things today, the documentary’s appeal will depend on your politics. Those that admire Barack Obama will feel “The Obama Years” reaffirms what made him a great man, while those that opposed his presidency, may feel Obama was all talk. Just words.