Film Review: “The Education of Auma Obama”

Republican Party propaganda paints President Barack Obama’s Kenyan family as alien to America;  reducing them basically to anti-American zealots. The propaganda especially goes on about the supposed “anti-colonial” and left-wing biases of his father Barack Hussein Obama Snr. (What is conveniently forgotten is that Obama Snr. is a product of elite American education–he studied economics at Harvard.) Yet the strongest impression one gets from the Obama family in director Branwen Okpako’s beautiful, and substantive documentary of Obama’s half sister, Auma Obama, is how familiar and American (including some of the values Republicans proffer of hard work and guile), the Obamas are. At the same time it is clear that Obama’s strengths–his intellectual sharpness, charisma and drive, can be equally traced to this branch of his family (his American mother was an anthropologist). These qualities seem present especially in Obama’s father and sister Auma. Barack and Auma Obama’s grandfather Hussein Onyango, a colonial cook, freedom fighter and oral historian, also emerges as a key influence.

Auma is no stranger to media attention as she has been profiled by countless journalists seeking information on the American president’s African roots. Barack Obama Jnr himself has credited Auma for reconnecting him with his African relatives. But those profiles and reporting never go beyond the mundane and soundbyte. Auma it turns out has built an impressive life herself. She left Kenya after high school–she did not tell her father–to study linguistics, dance and film (some of the footage in the film is hers) in Germany. There she also built a career as a public intellectual (she was a regular pundit on German TV; the scenes of her sparring with German pundits are great to watch). Back in Kenya she runs a foundation and works with young people.

“The Education of Auma Obama” situates itself in 2008 when Okpako traveled with Auma Obama (they met in film school in Germany in the early 1990s), to her grandmother’s house in Kogelo and where both Obama’s father and grandfather are buried. There Branwen, Auma and the rest of her family, well-wishes, locals and the media, await the result of the elections. We know the result of that contest (Barack Obama would become the first person of African descent to become president of the United States). The Kenyans celebrate Obama’s victory lustily. When a news reader announces the win, Obama’s relatives walk to where his father is buried on the property and break into song about “going to the White House.”

Auma Obama emerges as a compelling figure. Her father’s absences and complicated personal life had a profound impact on her–he had been married three times (sometimes polygamously) before he died in a car accident (his sister alleges it was an assassination) in 1982. “My father was not the best father … in planning for his family.”  Her youth life comprised multiple movings and boarding school. Auma speaks with affection and regret of Obama snr.’s second wife, Ruth Obama (an American) who taught her to be more assertive. But her relationship with her father also include tender moments. Barack Obama snr. loved classical music and spent hours listening to Chopin, sometimes inviting his daughter along. The film also suggests that leaving Kenya–implied as very socially conservative and predictable existence for its middle class–allowed Auma to grow into her own.

American viewers will be looking for Barack Obama sightings. But that would miss the point of the film, though Barack Obama makes multiple appearances; it was after all Auma who contacted him first about their father’s death (when Barack Obama writes back, Auma notices that “he writes just like my father”). We see him in photographs as Auma visit him in Chicago in the late 1980s where he worked as a community organizer (she describe heated political debates between Obama and her friends). Barack Obama then traveled to Kenya (Auma films a goateed Obama sitting on a porch talking about how “family draws you” and about belonging). In 1991 he brings his fiancee Michelle Robinson. Auma Obama made a short film about that visit. In clips from the film (which I now want to see more of), she explores, among others, what she deemed the different ways in which she and brother’s who is fundamentally a visitor/tourist–to Kenya, viewed or experience the country (especially tourism).

Given the kinds of falsehoods and half truths that are out there about the Obama family–especially its African branch–this film serves as a welcome corrective. But more importantly this is a film about a post-colonial generation of Africans (the “born frees” of the post-1960s independence era in Auma’s case) who want to forge their own futures on their own terms) but who are also shaped by the struggles of their parents. I strongly recommend it.

* “The Education of Auma Obama” screens on Monday, April 16, at 2pm at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. The filmmaker, Branwen Okpako, will be present for the screening.

* Africa is a Country is reviewing films from the 19th New York African Film Festival (April 11-17) over the next few days. Also come to the two panels on “Cinema and Propaganda” which we are co-presenting with the Festival later today from 1.30-4pm at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

Further Reading

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