Obama: In Pursuit of A More Perfect Union succeeds as a documentary. And yet, there’s a part of me that, while watching it, couldn’t help but reflect on how little the United States, as a nation, has done to achieve the lofty ideals former President Barrack Obama set out to achieve, back before the pandemic, before Trump, when we still had hope that things were easily fixed, that we weren’t as different as the last few years have taught us.
With the clarity of hindsight and perspective of the last four years, OBAMA: IN PURSUIT OF A MORE PERFECT UNION forms a cohesive picture of America under its first Black president. Obama’s presidency was unique in America’s history, but what was a historic step forward for the country also exposed the ever-present need to address deeply entrenched challenges around race, racial justice and our history.
Timed to the former President’s 60th birthday, the documentary, which will premiere the first of three parts tonight, clearly intends to be the definitive story on Barrack Obama’s life and Presidency. And, as it examines his motivations, his early life, the speech that made him famous, and the many things he hoped to achieve – some which he did, some which maybe it was not up to him, or anyone, to achieve in eight years, there’s a sense that the story of Obama the man who would become President is all here.
The story of Barrack Obama, the man who left the Presidency, however, is not. But hey, documentaries can always have a sequel, and then another one, if necessary.
As someone whose background is in law, and who routinely watches history documentaries, this was both endlessly fascinating, and surprising. Sometimes we think that because we’re living in a particular time that means we understand what’s going on in the world, in our government, in the minds of our leaders. That isn’t wholly so, as this documentary makes clear. And yet, this documentary, or it’s three parts, as it were, are both an autobiography and, at times, an exploration of the (false) notion that Barrack Obama’s election meant the end of racism in America.
Yet they all tell distinctly different stories, in a way that’s sometimes easy to differentiate.
Part One of OBAMA: IN PURSUIT OF A MORE PERFECT UNION looks back over Obama’s upbringing by a single mother from Kansas and white grandparents, his early schooling in Hawaii and his education at Columbia University and Harvard Law School. Through archival interviews, Obama reflects on the impact of having an estranged African father, growing up bi-racial and his evolving relationship with the African American community in Chicago, where he worked with Black churches as a community organizer.
It’s hard to say that part one is unnecessary, but it’s without a doubt the least interesting one, the most autobiographical, and the one that does the least to examine the legacy of the Former President. I came to appreciate some of the things I learned watching it as I watched the other two, but in general it provided very new information, and felt like the kind of background the filmmakers felt like we needed, but we could have honestly done without.
Part Two takes us from Obama’s presidential bid to his election to the White House in November 2008, exploring the obstacles and successes along the campaign trail. With constant pressure to define his identity along racial lines and frustrated by what he saw as a distraction from other important issues, Obama delivers his “race speech” of March 2008, a determined defense of the U.S. Constitution and a plea to look beyond America’s “racial stalemate” in order to advance prosperity and unity.
Part two is more interesting, if only because for someone like me, it feels more immediate. This is part of the history we remember, the part that we all feel involved us, and so seeing it from the other side just feels like validation that, at least for a while, we all felt the same hope that things could be better. That things could be different. This is, of course, not reality, but the second episode is more about establishing this moment, the person Barrack Obama is – and wanted to be, thank anything else.
Part Three takes us to the White House years and the formidable hurdles that Obama faced trying to pass legislation in a bitterly divided Congress. He ultimately succeeded in passing the Affordable Care Act but the chasm across the aisle in Washington grew ever wider. As the nation faced a period of heightened awareness around police brutality towards African Americans and the fervent partisan battle over gun control, his critics accused him and the administration of not doing enough to lead a conversation about race, and the president moves forward with policies that focus on racial justice and empowerment.
It’s part three that makes this documentary shine, however. Because it’s part three that truly dares to grapple with the notion that one single person could have or should have fixed something like racism, and systematically destroys the notion. It’s not a comfortable examination, and it goes against every shred of belief we might all have had that this journey could have been simple, but in so many ways, it feels like that’s necessary. Nothing can be built unless we all understand that we haven’t really moved forward all that much.
Of course, no one who needs to be convinced will probably be watching this documentary, so in many ways, this is preaching to the choir. And for preaching to the choir, it’s a bit too long, a bit too redundant, and a bit too much of the same. But unenjoyable it’s not, at least there’s that.
Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union premieres tonight at 9/8c on HBO, with parts two and three set to the air Wednesday and Thursday.