Timed to the former president’s 60th birthday, “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” seeks to be the definitive document on Barack Obama’s life and presidency, and at five-plus hours over three nights, mostly succeeds in that daunting task. At its best, this HBO production weds the soaring rhetoric and lofty expectations to the challenge of realizing that “more perfect union,” both then and now.
Given the Obamas’ producing relationship with Netflix — which recently aired the documentary devoted to Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” — it’s interesting to see HBO lay its claim to the 44th president. The only thing really missing from director Peter Kunhardt’s meticulously assembled production is much consideration of Obama’s post-presidential life, but in Hollywood, you save something for the sequel. (CNN and HBO are both part of WarnerMedia.)
Part I opens with Obama’s 2008 speech on race, in which he noted that America has “no choice” but to pursue a more perfect union. That’s bookended in the last chapter by his final presidential address in January 2017, leaving behind a bittersweet sense of what was accomplished — and what wasn’t — during those years.
Indeed, as journalist Michele Norris notes, talk of Obama’s election ushering in a “post-racial” society appears naïve with the benefit of hindsight, although the question lingers whether those citing the possibility at the time were being, as she puts it, “hopeful” or “delusional.”
Going back to Obama’s upbringing and early life, the documentary doesn’t gloss over aspects of those years that might not be entirely flattering, including a level of ambition that prompted him to push past older Democrats as he charted his road to the top.
That period also saw Obama face questions about whether he was “Black enough” to win support from the church and other key constituencies, before his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention launched him onto the national stage.
Kunhardt (also responsible for “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls”) devotes a full eight minutes to that address, which author Michael Eric Dyson calls an “electrifying” moment and “tremendous coming-out party.” Yet Obama’s image of Red and Blue Americas that share more than pundits let on can appear Pollyannaish given the final chapter, depicting the intense blowback against his presidency.
Those forces were evident during the 2008 campaign, where after the addition of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to the ticket, Obama adviser and CNN analyst David Axelrod says, “the tone and tenor of the crowds turned uglier and uglier.”
Still, throughout the documentary, as throughout Obama’s political career, ugliness is balanced by grace and uplift, captured in the tears of Jesse Jackson, the recollections of the late John Lewis, and the look on Oprah Winfrey’s face as Obama delivered his first victory speech.
Other key voices include the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. — each of whom figured in stories in which Obama’s racial identity became a political issue — author Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor/comic Keegan-Michael Key, whose sketch as Obama’s “anger translator” captured how the first Black president maintained his composure despite slights like South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “You lie” during a joint session of Congress.
Even five hours requires plenty of tough choices, but Kunhardt has nicely encapsulated the Obama presidency, both for those who can remember it and generations to come.
“We can disagree with the other side without being disagreeable,” Obama is shown telling the late Tim Russert during an interview. Like so much regarding his life and presidency, the ideal behind those words remains an elusive pursuit.
“Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” will air Aug. 3-5 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
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