'Obama Mama': SIFF Review

Courtesy of SIFF
Vivian Norris' movie has much bigger problems than its unfortunate, slangy title. 

Vivian Norris speaks to many acquaintances of Stanley Ann Dunham, though not to her son Barack Obama, in flawed portrait.

SEATTLE — Hobbled by very poor storytelling, sometimes glitchy video and interviewees who have a hard time getting to the point, Vivian Norris' Obama Mama has much bigger problems than its unfortunate, slangy title. Stanley Ann Dunham, the intellectually curious and socially conscious mother of Barack Obama, may well merit a good feature doc, but this isn't it. The high-profile subject notwithstanding, it's unlikely to get much play beyond fests.

The portrait is most effective in its first third, as high school friends describe the stimulating educational environment of the Seattle-area high school Dunham attended. Even here, though, use of archival film to convey a sense of the 1950s culture she grew up in goes well beyond what's necessary to set the scene and starts to feel like padding.

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These friends recall getting letters from Dunham, once she'd moved to Hawaii with her family, about her romance with a Kenyan student; their brief marriage and the birth of Barack Obama are dealt with more quickly than one might expect, and soon the film has moved with its subject to Indonesia.

The picture gets increasingly unfocused from this point on, with colleagues and friends often talking as much about themselves as about her. We get some feel for the new culture Dunham inhabited, but not much for who she became here or what her daily life was like — and not a single word about how this working woman raised her two children. Only 71 minutes into the 82-minute film does someone note the priority she placed on getting Obama into the best schools available.

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The doc's very dry second half bogs down in a discussion of microfinance that does as poor a job of explaining that concept's workings as of showing where she fit into its expansion. Beyond being told that microfinance is a great idea and that this occupied much of Dunham's attention toward the end of her too-brief life, we remain unenlightened.


Director-Screenwriter: Vivian Norris

Producers: Vivian Norris, Brian Woods

Editor: Angelos Angelidis

No rating, 82 minutes