"He woke up something inside of us that we didn't even know was there," filmmaker Tanikia Carpenter said while narrating in her debut documentary, Farewell Obama. In this case, she was referring to an awakening of hope in young people specifically. But the same can presumably be said for much of America.
The 30-minute documentary debuted at the Harper Theater in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, where the Obamas have a home, on Barack Obama's last day in office, January 19. Though Obama's supporters may be mourning the Trump presidency, the film does not utter a word about the nation's new commander-in-chief. Instead, it taps into familiar themes that have marked Obama's campaigns and eight-year presidential run: race and hope.
It does so through the lens of acquaintances and confidants of Obama who invited Carpenter into their homes and businesses to candidly share their memories of the man before that first presidential campaign. Carpenter also uses her visit to the White House as a North Park University student and the 2008 election celebration in Chicago's Grant Park to tie the film back to herself and the city. The film's soundtrack includes soulful tracks like Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," mirroring the Motown-esque songs the Obamas often play before or after their speeches.
Along with grainy cellphone footage and photographs of herself at the White House and in Grant Park, Carpenter weaves together interviews with Bishop Ed Peecher, the pastor of a Chicago church; Zariff, Obama's barber; and Stephen and Patricia Blessman, who worked on Obama's 2008 campaign. The interviewees share anecdotes ranging from charming to heartbreaking yet hopeful. One tells viewers about the death of her young child and receiving a thoughtful letter from Obama stating that he "was praying for her." Others share collected Christmas cards from the Obama family and detail tales of tirelessly working on the campaign to the point where some slept in the office before election day.
After Jesse Jackson's failed bids for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and '88, there was some skepticism in the black community that Obama could actually win, which interviewees admit. But as one of the subject put it, "Just to know the Obamas is [to] hope." It's not quite clearly articulated why they inspired that hope in this documentary, but it's clearly a current that runs wide and deep—and not just among the people Carpenter talked to.
Farewell Obama is part of a wave of nostalgia for the former president that started even before he left office. Last summer saw the release of South Side with You, a biopic depicting Barack's first date with Michelle, and last month Netflix gave us Barry, another biopic, this one based on Barack's attempt to find himself while in college in New York. None of these films try to examine the complicated legacy of his presidency—they are about Barack Obama the person. Who was he before he became president? And how did he become such a towering figure in recent American politics?
Barry explores his ambivalence with race. As a biracial young man with a short, curly afro, Obama navigates both an affluent, mostly white academic world as a student and the struggles of black and brown inner city New Yorkers, getting himself in uncomfortable situations as he tries to seamlessly code-switch between both.
Southside with You, on the other hand, presents viewers with Barack's powers of persuasion, shown through community organizing and his budding relationship with a then-reluctant Michelle Robinson. Both films offer the kind of intimacy you usually only get with fiction—the Obamas represented are familiar, but how close are they to the real thing? Farewell Obama is more distant and doesn't pretend to be uncovering any deeper truths. It's a snapshot of a campaign, as well as a time before everyone knew that Donald Trump would be working to undo his legacy.
"The goal was to get people who worked with Obama before he became president, because they had these stories we never heard," Carpenter said. "We wanted these hidden stories to come out at this time, because we have lived to see history take place."
As most of the country reflects on the eight years of Obama's presidency, each of these films offers a different perspective—a look at what he meant to the people who knew him best, and the people who didn't know him at all but wished they did. To Carpenter, Obama's presidency "meant hope that if you put your mind to something and God calls you to do something, you're going to achieve it no matter what may come against you."
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