Making “The Way I See It” reminded Dawn Porter of the sense of calm she used to have about what was happening at the White House.
“I did not understand how much I relied on the office of the presidency being non-chaotic, being something that was deliberate and thoughtful,” says the lawyer-turned-documentary filmmaker. “And I didn’t realize how much that personally affected me.”
In the political maelstrom that is 2020, Porter’s two latest movies feel like the brief pause in the eye of a hurricane.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble” was released in early July, just two weeks before the civil rights icon’s death. It won praise as a portrait of a life lived in pursuit of social justice and as a persuasive argument that voting rights are under attack this very minute.
Now comes “The Way I See It,” which premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It arrives Friday at theaters nationally that have reopened since COVID-19 shutdowns – metro Detroit’s cinemas remain closed – and airs Oct. 9 on MSNBC (and should be available for streaming after that).
The movie takes a bittersweet look at Pete Souza’s evolution from chronicling history as an official White House photographer for Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama to becoming “the king of shade” for his social media rebukes of Donald Trump.
Along with his presidential gigs, Souza has done work for National Geographic and the Chicago Tribune. But it wasn’t until after his tenure with Obama ended that he stopped being a fly on the wall and started expressing his own dismay with Trump on Instagram, where he currently has 2.3 million followers.
The film follows Souza on the lecture circuit as he shares why he went public with his criticisms, which started off rather mildly.
“I like these drapes better than the gaudy new gold ones,” posted Souza during Trump’s first week in office next to a photo of Obama with the former red drapes. From there, his comments grew in intensity as Souza became more alarmed at what he came to see as Trump’s disrespect for democracy and law and disregard for the public good.
Souza has two books out that inspired the documentary: 2017’s “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” and 2018’s “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents,” which contrasts Trump’s tweets with photos of Obama in office.
Yet “The Way I See It” spends little time directly mentioning Trump, and that was a conscious decision on Porter’s part. Instead, she puts the focus on the moments, large and small, captured by Souza that symbolize Obama’s leadership style.
There are pictures of tremendous gravity, including the image captured during Obama’s meeting with parents after the Sandy Hook massacre that reveals the hug he gave a mother lost in grief.
Obama is seen visiting wounded soldiers and singing “Amazing Grace” at a service for a victim of another mass killing, this time in Charleston, South Carolina. His inherent empathy shines through, especially toward children, whether he’s spending time making snow angels with his daughters or leaning down in the Oval Office to let a 5-year-old African-American boy touch his hair.
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There also is ample evidence of Obama’s warm, joking relationship with his staffers, including Souza, who recalls asking the president whether he could ride in the car with the first couple briefly during 2012 inauguration events.
“He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘Well, Michelle and I were planning to make out,’ ” says Souza, laughing at the memory.
Souza shares some private footage of his own Rose Garden wedding, which Obama promised him if he would finally take the big step and get married to his longtime girlfriend.
“Isn’t that so cool?” says Porter, speaking by phone. “I think it just speaks to their relationship. It speaks to joy. it’s such a unique moment that we were thrilled to be able to include it.”
A Georgetown University Law School graduate who worked in the legal departments of ABC and the A&E network, Porter switched to documentary filmmak…