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Obama’s Power of Words Shines in New Documentary

Smithsonian Channel’s ‘Obama Years’ is history lesson on six of his most moving speeches

The premiere event took place at the National Museum of American History. (Alex Gangitano/ CQ Roll Call)
The premiere event took place at the National Museum of American History. (Alex Gangitano/ CQ Roll Call)

Eighteen days after Barack Obama handed over the presidency of the United States to his successor, a film about his craft debuted.

Is that too soon? Not if you start with the words of an Illinois state senator in 2004.

The Smithsonian Channel’s “Obama Years: The Power of Words” frames Obama as the Writer in Chief and discusses the value the former president put on words and the power he knew words had in critical times during his presidency.

It premiered Tuesday night at the National Museum of American History. The documentary is part of Smithsonian Channel’s series of films that have an African-American narrative.

In honor of Black History Month, a documentary about the first black president seemed fitting.

The movie highlights six of Obama’s speeches, all of which the creators found particularly profound and significant. The first three were from before he was president.

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Of course, the first speech was at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when former senator and future secretary of State John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president. Obama met Jon Favreau there, a former speechwriter and one of the many narrators of the movie.

Other narrators include Favreau’s successor, Cody Keenan, and former senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod. Many of the photographs were from former White House photographer Pete Souza.

These insiders provided the voice of Obama, what went into writing a speech and insight into the former president’s methods — which often included marking up and extensively editing his speechwriters’ drafts.

The second speech was in 2008 in Philadelphia while running for the Democratic nomination when Obama had to explain his relationship with his fiery Illinois pastor Jeremiah Wright. The speech was the time when race was at the forefront of his campaign, but also when Obama let American into his personal story completely, the documentary explains.

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The third speech was at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. During the speech preparation, Favreau said Obama teared up at a Martin Luther King Jr. reference. Obama also stopped before going on stage and said a prayer by himself.

The film fast forwards to Obama’s inauguration by showing just a photograph of the crowd — that caused the premiere’s audience to erupt in laughter. President Donald Trump was never mentioned during the film but the audience’s laughter at this image and praise throughout the movie showed it was clearly an Obama-supporting D.C. crowd.

The fourth speech was in 2012 after the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., which Obama eloquently stressed empathy, and the film adds that following the speech, Congress took no action on gun laws. This punch was one of the only partisan ones in the movie.

The film briefly mentions Obama’s use of humor at White House Correspondents Association dinner speeches, especially in 2011, which was right after he gave the order for the mission to take out Osama bin Laden.

The fifth speech was in 2015 in Alabama on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches and Bloody Sunday. This narrative includes Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis.

The final speech is another unforgettable one — when Obama started singing “Amazing Grace” during a speech in Charleston, S.C., after the shooting at a black church. Obama told Jarrett and first lady Michelle Obama that he was thinking of singing during his remarks.

To make his three most memorable speeches during his presidency surround events of sadness and horror, the creators stress the significance of Obama’s ability to heal and comfort the country with his words.

Tuesday was the first of 13 screenings about the country. “Obama Years: The Power of Words” premiers on the Smithsonian Channel on Feb. 27.

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