HBO’s new documentary goes places the Obama media machine might not have
There’s no shortage of films and TV series covering Barack and Michelle Obama’s lives and legacy, from Netflix’s “Becoming,” — a documentary portrait of the former first lady released by the pair’s own production company, Higher Ground — to the scripted romance “Southside With You” and the “Frontline” political biography of the 44th president, “Dreams of Obama.” So when HBO announced its three-part series “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union,” it was hard to imagine what new material or insights, if any, it had to offer.
And at the outset, the first installment, which premieres Tuesday, is deceptive. It feels like another ode to a beloved president and a favored subject among filmmakers. He is, after all, an irresistible subject: a Black man with a Muslim name who won election to the White House, twice, in a nation that has yet to deal with its racist past — and present. He’s a font of eloquent speeches and quick-witted jokes, and his life is filled with the sort of dramatic obstacles that seem made for the screen. Plus, there’s ample footage of his ascent, from his work as a community organizer in Chicago to his run for the state and then the U.S. Senate.
And “A More Perfect Union” capitalizes on all the above. But it ultimately sets itself apart by taking a deeper look at the multitude of issues that surfaced after America finally chose its first Black president.
Across each of the roughly 90-minute episodes, “In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union,” from documentary filmmaker Peter W. Kunhardt (“Living with Lincoln,” “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words,” and “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls”), delves into complicated questions related to Blackness and inclusivity in interviews with the late Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, journalist Michele Norris, Rev. Al Sharpton, professor Cornel West, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill, political adviser Valerie Jarrett, professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., politician Jesse Jackson, author Michael Eric Dyson and series’ co-producer Jelani Cobb, among others.
Netflix’s new documentary, “Becoming,” a companion to Michelle Obama’s memoir of the same name, is unlikely to change one’s view of its subject.
And although the Obamas aren’t interviewed for the series — the only family member to appear is the former president’s Kenyan aunt — it’s unlikely the documentary would have gone to the places it does if the 44 machine had been steering the narrative.
The first part, which follows Obama from childhood to his decision to run for president, kicks off with his famous “race” speech in March 2008, in which he addressed the media controversy surrounding Wright, his church pastor, during the Democratic primary campaign. Obama used the make-or-break opportunity to address the issues of race in America raised by his candidacy and to promote the idea of American unity and hope.
But alongside the usual biographical storytelling, with archival photos and footage from previously aired interviews with Barack and Michelle, the production veers into more compelling territory when it hands the discussion over to those in the Black community who were working in the political trenches during Obama’s rise.
For instance, Sharpton recalls a conversation he had with then-Illinois state Sen. Obama in 2004 at the Caucus of Black Delegates, the day before Obama was to give his breakthrough keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.
The mixed-race Obama was already walking a tightrope between serving the Black community and appealing to whites, Sharpton says: “He said, ‘I just want to explain to you, reverend that I’m doing the keynote tomorrow night and I’m probably going to be more expansive and unifying than a lot of people are used to.’ I stopped him and said, ‘Don’t worry, senator. You do what you have to do tomorrow night because you have to win for U.S. Senate. I’m gonna take care of the brothers and sisters tonight.’ I think that kind of began a relationship where he and I understood that we played different roles.”
Using Obama’s legacy as a prism to look at the myriad ways his presidency forced the country to grapple with its painful history, the series thus offers a fresh look at how Obama did and didn’t fit into the country’s prevailing political narratives.
The second part, which covers his presidential run, reveals that Obama felt constant pressure “to define his identity along racial lines,” which left him “frustrated by what he saw as a distraction from other important issues.”
Wright recalls the media blitz that saw 30 years’ worth of clips from his impassioned sermons at Chicago’s Trinity United Church edited down to two minutes of remarks criticizing American foreign policy and blasting whites for the original sin of slavery. Using terms like “incendiary,” the media used it to expose “the radical roots of Barack Obama.” When Wright recalls Obama calling him three times in one day, kicking him off the presidential campaign committee, it’s one of many honest, eye-opening and bittersweet moments in the story of our first Black president.
“The White Lotus” ably mocks the wealthy patrons of a tropical resort. Its knives would have been even sharper if it had spent more time on the staff.
The third part then turns to Obama’s time in the White House: Sen. Mitch McConnell’s promise to make him a one-term president; passing the Affordable Care Act; and dealing with the issues of police brutality against Black people and white supremacist violence, such as Dylann Roof’s massacre of Black congregants at a South Carolina church. But early in his presidency, facing the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, Obama largely steered clear of discussing race, and focused instead on the staggering level of broader socioeconomic injustice and inequality.
“On the one hand, who can blame Obama,” Dyson says. “‘I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the Black president. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the only thing I can talk about is race. In fact, when I come into office, the greatest thing that is confronting the nation is the economy. Do I allow the banks to fail?’ Stop. Can you imagine the headlines after the first Black president allows the banks to fail? And yet equally dispiriting was his reluctance to even weigh in.”
Alvin Love, of Chicago’s Lilydale Baptist Church, offers another perspective, this one from outside the realm of Washington, D.C., punditry or Capitol Hill machinations: “I don’t think there was any way possible for Barack Obama as president to ever [live] up to the expectations of the African American community, because they expected him really to undo 400 years of injustice with the stroke of a pen.”
The series ends with the backlash — birtherism, the rise of white nationalism, Trump — but it’s nonetheless a reminder that perfect unions take time. And Obama, for all his own imperfections, brought us a step closer.
‘Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union’
Where: HBO and HBO Max
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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