On Friday, January 29, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP) hosted a screening of By the People: The Election of Barack Obama and held a conversation with IOP Director David Axelrod and filmmaker Alicia Sams.
Fourth-year student and Senior Chairman of the IOP Student Advisory Board Aneri Amin led the discussion about the film with Sams and Axelrod. Sams first explained her involvement in this project by telling a story about her co-director, Amy Rice. Rice’s brother died in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and her desire to understand why those events had occurred sparked her interest in politics. According to Sams, when Rice heard Barack Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, she felt as though “[he] spoke to her generation.”
Axelrod, who served as the 2008 Obama campaign’s chief strategist, said that he was initially reluctant to allow Sams and Rice to film the campaign activities because “bringing a camera into the room was the surest way to mess things up.” His concern was that the chemistry among the staff would be ruined because people would start acting for the camera. Thanks in part to their persistence, the crew was granted permission to begin filming.
Axelrod also discussed then-Senator Obama’s decision to run for the presidency. The 2004 speech and his prominence in the media during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina set his campaign in motion, and by the end of 2006 it was clear he was going to run. Axelrod said that “[Obama] wanted to talk not just about whether he should run, but whether he thought he could make a contribution that nobody else could make.”
Sams recalled the time the campaign spent in South Carolina, and the fear that many people there had for Obama’s safety. They discussed the importance of previous African American leaders’ sacrifice to Obama’s success.
She said, “The feeling among the African American community…was almost like they didn’t want to believe, because they had so many leaders taken from them.”
When asked by Amin what young leaders of color can learn from the film, Sams said, “They can learn that really, things are possible.”
The conversation wrapped up with a question for Axelrod on how he thought the film portrayed Obama’s primary and general election campaigns. He said that “[the film] captured the rhythm of the campaign really, really well.”
After a short break, the IOP staff started the film, which followed the Obama campaign from its beginnings to Election Day 2008. While it featured shots of Obama, the focus was on his staff and supporters.
“I feel inspired, I feel like I learned something,” first-year Abigail Kuchnir said.
Editor's Note: Alicia Sams is a member of the Maroon's Advisory Board.