I saw this campaign film twice in Charlotte. First at the women's forum, the second time in the arena. Both times it raised the roof. It brought the people in the room -- 500 in the ballroom, 10,000 in the arena -- leaping to their feet, applauding, cheering, crying, laughing.
Because it never fails to make me feel potent and optimistic, I have watched it a couple of times this week by myself on a computer screen. Given the plight of teachers in Chicago and elsewhere, and our pressing need to continue pressing this president on his approach to education policy during his second term, I needed to see it again just now. It's a fix.
I am interested in how it works because it does work. We've got to keep talking to people where they feel as well as where they think. (Jon Stewart and his team talk to where people laugh; our message needs to target the same general neighborhood.) So: at the risk of being an egghead, here's a little critical multimodal discourse analysis. Feel free to log off!
We hear her before we see her. A lone voice. Quiet and up close. Introducing the chant. Then a piano -- black and white keys accompanying the voice. From close up, she tells us her name and where she's from. (She does not say that she's a city councilwoman herself, already known as "the chant lady." The filmmakers wisely make it seem as though she rises out of the soup of anonymity.) And then the story, an individual testimony, begins.
But she is not telling her story all alone. This is a dialogic narrative. Intercut with Edith S. Childs's situated storytelling in Greenwood, South Carolina is that of Barack Obama himself, speaking at a huge rally in Virginia. Rooted in both the southern rural space ("an hour and a half from everyplace else," in Obama's words) and a more northern, populous place, the telling of the story fully inhabits the sacred-secular continuum linguist Geneva Smitherman describes in talkin that talk. The message itself, the film suggests, is a collaborative act.
The co-told story displays particular features of masterful rhetoric. These happen to be qualities of Black English (African American English, African American Language, Ebonics, call it what you will), but of course are not limited to black speakers.
The concreteness of the scene Obama describes is plain: the long drive, the rain, the details regarding the "small woman" and her "church hat," his shifting mood. There is humor in the telling, both within each of the speaker's voices, as well as in the decisions of the filmmakers. The narratives are edited to play off one another:
Childs: It was a small group of people--[cut immediately to]
Obama: --Twenty people.
This storytelling expands the story from one to two narrators, and will eventually make room for the roomfuls of people depicted in the film, the crowd Obama is addressing, and all of us "out here" watching.
Like all compelling speakers, Obama shares a personal transformation. He goes from reluctant grump, concerned that this bouncing, energetic woman is "stealing his thunder," to participant, to follower of her voice. "So I'm joinin in the chant, and it feels good," he says. He leaves Greenwood so fired up, he aborbs the chant into the rest of his day, taking it up with humor among his staff. "You fired up?" he asks them. "We're fired up, boss," they reply. Here we are subtly reminded that, although this man has learned a lesson from a small woman in Greenwood, North Carolina, he's still the boss.
The whole story is told so good naturedly that we are primed for the moral, delivered by Obama himself: "It shows you what one voice can do," he says. [Think of Jon Stewart's affective pivot to his deadly-serious delivery of "We'll be right back," his tone-changing signal that the comedy of a segment is over and that we are to take seriously the outrage that has fueled the jokes.]
Finally there's the emotionally charged rhythmic repetition of the limitless algabraic power of one voice to change larger and larger contexts: If it can change [X], it can change [X+1], if it can change [X+1], it can change [X+2]…"
Given the logic of this construction, and with everyone in the film chanting "Fired up! Ready to Go!", it suddenly doesn't seem like such a stretch for Obama to bring all the voices together into a single collective command: "Let's go change the world."
To which the appropriate response is: Yes, let's!
For those of you who want to try this at home, here's the invocation given last week at the DNC by Gabriel Salguero, an evangelical Christian Democrat and pastor at the Lamb's Church of the Nazarene in New York City. How do these carefully chosen words work? They're good.