By the People: Election of Barak Obama–Edward Norton’s Documentary

By the People: The Election of Barak Obama offers a moving, factual record of the Obama campaign’s history-making odyssey to the White House.  Interwoven with the drama of the campaign is never-before-seen footage of Obama behind the scenes, as well as interviews and candid moments with wife Michelle Obama, the couple’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, and senior campaign staff, volunteers, reporters, supporters and opponents.


Nearly a year before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency on Feb. 10, 2007, filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams began to roll cameras on the young senator.  Over the next 19 months, they traveled across the country, chronicling the daily ups and downs of the campaign trail as experienced by Obama, his family, his staff and volunteers.

While Obama’s meteoric rise to the White House has been well documented in the press, few have witnessed the behind-the-scenes story of the passionate campaigners who helped a young African-American freshman senator attain the nation’s highest office.

Produced by Edward Norton, Stuart Blumberg and William Migliore, and directed by Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, the docu will debut November 3, exclusively on HBO.

Rice conceived the idea of making a documentary about Obama long before the Illinois Senator announced his decision to run for president.  Inspired by his oratorical skills and star appeal at the 2004 Democratic Convention, she set out to film his political career in 2006.  Rice approached documentary producer Sams, who joined to co-direct and actor Edward Norton’s production company, Class 5, agreed to produce the project.  After Norton approached Obama’s team with the idea, the senator agreed to grant the filmmakers what turned out to be unprecedented and exclusive access.

“Initially, it wasn’t even about a presidential campaign; the idea was simply to examine the political experience of a promising young politician of our generation,” says Norton, a two-time Oscar-nominee.

For Rice, the project had an even more personal dimension.  She lost her older brother in the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers, an event that galvanized her political awakening.  Then she saw Obama’s 2004 convention speech on TV.  Rice recalls,” That’s when the idea of making a political documentary came into my mind.”

Notes Sams, “It was clear that Obama was inspiring people to think differently about politics.  We wanted to explore his impact and see where it would take both him and the country.”

From this unique vantage point, By the People captures the boundless fervor of the campaign’s volunteers, as well as the extraordinary skill and technical sophistication of its organizers. 

“I think people will look back on this campaign as one that was conducted with a real understanding of communication and organizing tools that were singular to that moment,” says Norton.  “It was an historic new read on how you could do an end run around conventional political methodology and strategies.”

By the People tracks Obama’s halting progress from long-odds candidate to front-runner in the 2008 presidential race.  It’s a roller-coaster ride that includes all the victories and upsets that were followed by millions in the media, seen from within the Obama campaign:  from thrilling wins and disappointing losses in key states, to controversies stemming from Obama’s associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers; from the high of receiving his party’s nomination over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, to the low of losing his beloved grandmother the day before his final victory over Sen. John McCain on Election Day.

Young people were critical to Obama?s success and their role is highlighted in this feature-length documentary.  “I think if we were in a close race, these kids, they’re going to win it for us,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign strategist. “They think they’re changing the world, and that’s the best thing that they could do.”


Among the young staffers highlighted are Polk County, Iowa organizer Ronnie Cho, who regularly calls his mother from the campaign trail, sometimes completely overcome with emotion, and a nine-year-old volunteer who works the phones, barely containing his frustration when the person he is calling appears unfamiliar with Obama’s name.

By the People culminates in the general election of November 2008, showing the Obama team glued to TV screens at campaign headquarters in Chicago, waiting with baited breath as results come in.  Cheers fill the office as Ohio, then Iowa, go to Obama.  His top speechwriter types on a laptop while talking to Obama on a cell phone, putting the finishing touches on an acceptance speech.  Then, after the polls close in western states, news of Obama’s victory finally breaks amid cheers and tears of joy, and the film follows David Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe in elevators, along ha
llways and past security checkpoints as they make their way to Obama’s hotel room.  History has been made.

Amy Rice previously co-directed the documentary From Ashes, and has worked extensively as a cinematographer.  Alicia Sams has produced many documentary films, including the critically acclaimed theatrical release Toots. They met in 2000 while working on a series of documentaries made in conjunction with the New York City public school system.