Mercer Island is part of documentary on Obama’s mother

A yearbook photograph of Stanley Dunham at Mercer Island High School. - contributed art
A yearbook photograph of Stanley Dunham at Mercer Island High School.
— image credit: contributed art

A documentary film is in the works about Stanley Ann Dunham, the mother of President Barack Obama.

Islander Carlos Espinoza, a six‐time regional Emmy Award winning television producer, is the associate producer of the film, to be called “Stanley Ann Dunham: A Most Generous Spirit.”

People want to know more about Obama’s unorthodox path to the presidency, Espinoza said, from a tenuous union between a girl from Kansas and a man from Africa. Who was this woman who brought a United States president into the world? How did she inspire and shape her son into the person who is now one of the most powerful leaders in the world?

The concept for the film comes from President Obama himself, Espinoza said. He has repeatedly said his mother was the most influential person in his life. He credited her when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

“And we know so little about her,” he continued. “She is a fascinating story in her own right.”

Espinoza, who splits his time between the Island and Los Angeles, has been on Mercer Island looking for more information about Dunham’s time here, combing through newspapers at the library, school records and talking to Dunham’s classmates from Mercer Island High School.

“Mercer Island had a great influence on the rest of her life,” he said.

The film will take viewers to the places that Dunham lived and worked, from her birthplace in Kansas to Indonesia to Hawaii. The plan is for a film crew to come to Seattle and Mercer Island as well.

The filmmakers are eager for some way to glean more information and, hopefully, images of the president’s mother. The team is hoping that there are more photos and some home movies — perhaps from a slumber party, a dance, or an event at Mercer Island High School.

“The tiny snapshots we have don’t tell the story,” Espinoza said. “We are looking for what we haven’t seen.”

Espinoza is quick to add that the intent of the story is to go beyond the facts about Dunham. The team wants to focus on the ways that Dunham helped the poor in developing countries through her research and her development of micro-finance.

“She is to be an example that is to be emulated,” he said, “to make people think about their own lives and purpose.”

Dunham graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree.

In 1992, she was awarded a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Hawaii. Her dissertation was entitled “Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving and thriving against all odds.” According to published accounts, “Dunham’s paper challenged popular perceptions regarding economically and politically marginalized groups, and countered the notions that the roots of poverty lie with the poor themselves and that cultural differences are responsible for the gap in income between nations. She concluded that underdevelopment in these communities resulted from a scarcity of capital, the allocation of which was a matter of politics, not culture.”

She later pursued a career in rural development, focusing on women’s work and microcredit for the world’s poor primarily in Indonesia, a country that is now a world leader in micro-credit systems. Dunham died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 52.

The film will be directed by documentary filmmaker, Charles Burnett, who was the director of the films, “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation,” “Killer of Sheep,” and “Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding.” Others involved in the film include producers Carolyn Schroeder and Greg Ptacek. Schroeder previously worked with Burnett on Miramax’s “The Glass Shield.”

Aloe Entertainment president and founder Mary Aloe will be the executive producer.

The documentary will also “delve into Dunham’s work in microfinance and explore her decision to send her 10-year-old son from Indonesia to live in Hawaii with her parents out of fear that her politically sensitive work might endanger his life,” Aloe said.

Dunham’s life story and the life of her son resonates with Espinoza. He was born to farm workers and grew up in farm laborers’ housing in Bakersfield, Calif. He credits his parents, especially his own mother, with his success. His parents were determined that he did not become part of another generation of farm workers like them. They did not allow him to work in the fields, instead making sure that he finished school rather than dropping out to work.

“My mother pushed me,” he said. “You can do whatever you want, she would say. You can do more than what is here.”

He took her advice, going to school and fashioning a career in media. He is an award-winning photographer, reporter and filmmaker.

Espinozas’ work as a researcher was seen in the 2007 motion picture, “Battle in Seattle.” Espinoza was also the lead marketing and advertising executive for Cox Media Group’s, KIRO 7 Television and KOMO 4 Television, in Seattle.

In addition to the regional Emmy’s, He has been honored with several Associated Press awards for video photography and awards for investigative journalism and editorial excellence.

Production is slated to begin this year. The production team is currently negotiating for the participation of President Obama.

Anyone who has information or pictures of Dunham to share may contact Espinoza at

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