Arts & Events

Moving Picures: Film Documents Would-Be President’s 2006 Trip to Africa

By Justin DeFreitas,
Thursday July 24, 2008 - 10:15:00 AM

In August of 2006, Illinois Senator Barack Obama embarked on a diplomatic trip to Africa. Along the way, he made his first visit in 14 years to Kenya, birthplace of his father. Thousands turned out to see the would-be president wherever he went, and to his credit Obama sought to make the most of it, using every appearance to draw attention to the issues of the region.  

The trip was documented in a film called Senator Obama Goes to Africa. First Run Features recently released the film on DVD.  

A diplomatic trip is just that: a chance to hobnob and kibbitz with the people, with dignitaries and politicians. It’s a series of speeches and photo-ops, and for the most part that’s all this film manages to capture. As we’ve seen in the ensuing two years, Obama and his staff know how to stage-manage his appearances, how to harness the excitement he inspires, and this documentary captures that clearly if a little too faithfully. We see crowds cheering their son of a native son, we hear Africans opining on the greatness of the man and the impact of his presence, and then we see the man himself, in press conferences and one-on-one interviews, underlining for us once again his sincerity, his graciousness, his humility. The film comes across more as a campaign commercial than a documentary. 

There is only one voice that manages to break the hagiographic spell. Ellis Close, contributing editor to Newsweek, is the only talking head in the picture who expresses anything resembling a dissenting voice. Close goes beyond the press-release rhetoric and flatly states the political underpinnings of the trip, namely Obama’s need to establish a foreign-policy credential. That’s not exactly earth-shattering insight, but it provides some much-needed perspective on the event, helping to ground this otherwise giddy portrait in the world of politics. Close is essentially the only voice in the film that manages to puncture the Prodigal Son storyline with a bit of reality, pointing out the political benefits of the positions Obama adopts on his journey in an effort to establish credibility in the eyes of not only his African hosts, but for those back in the States as well. The film would have been greatly enhanced had it sought out more such voices, for the resulting portrait would have been a fuller, more revealing document about a candidate and a man who is far more interesting than his carefully crafted public image would suggest.