An Interview with the Producer of “The Obama Years: The Power of Words”

SelmaPresident Barack Obama has been celebrated for many of his accomplishments during his time in office as the 44th president of the United States of America ranging from saving the U.S. auto industry to creating jobs to implementing the Affordable Care Act. But in her new documentary, ?The Obama Years: The Power of Words,? producer/writer Jody Schiliro focuses on six of the 3,500 often moving, always intelligent speeches and statements he made during his historic two terms in office.?

?I?ve always been interested in the way the White House works, and I produced two other documentaries about it. One was on resident workers in the White House who are plumbers, ushers, butlers, pastry chefs, etc., which was a unique insight into a world that not many people know about, one where these workers get to know the first family very well and on a personal level. The second one was on presidential photography and I interviewed five different photographers from five different administrations. In that one, I focused on Pete Souza who was President Obama?s photographer. Again, it was interesting because the photographers spend so much time with the president that they usually end up becoming very good friends with the president and view the presidency from a different vantage point. I thought the same about the speechwriters and the speechwriting process,? Schiliro told in an exclusive interview days ahead of the documentary?s premiere on Monday, February 27 on the Smithsonian Channel.

She continued, ?What surprised me the most about this film as I started to do my research was how involved President Obama was in the speechwriting process. It?s another little niche and insight into how the White House works.?

Many of us met Barack Obama through our television screens during his captivating 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech when he spoke on patriotism and unity. And later, the Obama effect took hold as we watched him unite the country through thousands more memorable speeches.?

In a statement released by the film?s producers, ?By looking at six benchmark speeches, The Obama Years: The Power of Words examines how President Obama used ?the bully pulpit? first, as a brash young state senator and later, as a president grappling with turbulent times in the face of chaotic events.???

Narrated by actor/activist Jesse Williams and with commentary by some of Obama’s longtime advisers and members of his inner circle such as Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, the film contains interviews with speechwriters Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan, and insight from esteemed historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley.

Here, we speak more with Schiliro about the development of the hour-long film about a president who, for eight years, eloquently delivered numerous speeches on the topics of race relations, patriotism, and hope and healing, when the country needed to hear it the most.?? ? Was there any research done to note how involved the president was in writing his speeches and how much input came from speechwriters?

Jody Schiliro:? President Obama gave more than 3,500 speeches, so he did not have input on every single one but, and I think the speechwriters would agree, on the big speeches he was an integral part of the process. Many times, the speechwriters would go to the president when they knew there was a big speech coming up, for example, the 50th Anniversary of Selma. They?d sit down with the president and get his thoughts before they even started writing. The draft would go back and forth between the speechwriter and the president and many times, as we show in the film, sometimes he even sat down and wrote out the speeches himself, which he tends to write out on a yellow legal pad. So, some of the speeches were completely written by him.???? Among the writers and the producers, was there any talk of what some of the president?s best or most impactful speeches were??

J.S.: When I did the research and chose the speeches, I read as much as I could about speeches and I talked to folks inside and out of the White House, to people who were very politically informed, and to people who just had a tangential interest in politics. Out of all those conversations and based on what I had read, I chose six of his speeches that kind of bubbled up to the surface and were talked about a lot. I actually wished we had time to include a couple more, but we had time restraints. I would have included the speech he gave when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. It was fascinating because he talked about the necessity of war. A lot of his staff members and speechwriters really understood that speech when they interviewed him.? In the film, historian Douglas Brinkley says, ?Someday there will be the collected speeches of Barack Obama. And I think they?ll tell us more about our hopes, dream, aspirations and dark realities than any other document to represent that era.? Did any of your research indicate how his speeches fared when compared to noted speeches made by past presidents who too were considered to have given great speeches during their administrations?

J.S.:? Both Douglas and Doris Kearns Goodwin said they felt as if he will be remembered for his speechwriting ability and his oratory skills and thought that he will be remembered as the best of modern times.??? How cool was it to have activist/actor Jesse Williams as the narrator after he himself blew folks out of the water with a spot-on speech last year about race relations on BET that people are still, to this day, talking about?

J.S.: We were thrilled to have Jesse as the narrator. He actually wanted to narrate the film when we approached him, so we were very fortunate to have him lend his voice to the piece and we think he is a terrific match.? Where has the film been screened and will it be available at a later date on DVD for purchase??

J.S.: The premiere screening was at the Smithsonian?s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. There have also been screenings at Smithsonian-affiliated theaters in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Denver, New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Seattle, Houston and Atlanta. The museum in D.C. will continue to show it and it airs on television this Monday at 8pm ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel. Regarding DVD, I?m not positive, but I think it will be available sometime in the future.? Is there a particular interview in the film that you like the most?

J.S.: I really enjoyed all of the interviews, but in particular the interview with John Lewis where he talked about what it was like to be leading the peaceful protestors on Bloody Sunday. That was an extraordinary experience that I?ll never forget.

(CLICK HERE to read about President Obama’s farewell speech.)