Billions of people around the world, tens of millions of Americans and just about everyone in Chicago knows the story of Barack Obama inside and out, up and down, told from innumerable perspectives ranging from the highly critical to pure mythologizing to somewhere in between — yet there’s something timely and compelling and fascinating about the three-part, six-hour HBO documentary “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union.”
Maybe it’s because it simultaneously feels like only yesterday and a million years ago when President-elect Obama issued a glorious and hopeful acceptance speech in Grant Park on a lovely November evening in 2008. Maybe it’s because it’s still a remarkable thing to revisit Obama’s incredible journey and relive a two-term presidency that was undeniably historic and included some lasting achievements but was also marked by immediate and constant hardcore resistance from the right, setbacks and controversies — and the inevitable feeling that no matter what Obama accomplished, some (including more than a few leaders in the Black community) would feel his greatest achievement was symbolic.
Director Peter Kunhardt delivers a solid, straightforward, mostly linear work that takes us through Obama’s childhood and education and spends a great deal of time on his arrival in Chicago at age 24 and his subsequent stints as a community organizer who was tabbed as a political superstar in the making, continuing through his meteoric rise through the Democratic ranks and his two terms as president. Neither Barack nor Michelle Obama participated in the documentary, so “Obama” relies heavily on archival interviews and features by “60 Minutes” and other news magazine programs, as well as talking-head interviews with the likes of longtime political consultant David Axelrod and speechwriter Jon Favreau.
More provocative are the new interviews with some key figures who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Obama, either during his presidency or while his star was ascending. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., still seems to relish the memory — and rightfully so — of beating back Obama’s challenge to his seat by a 2-to-1 margin in 2000. Obama’s longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, remains wounded by Obama distancing himself from Wright after the media played a collection of excerpts from Wright’s most incendiary and in some cases bigoted and hateful sermons. Shirley Sherrod, who was let go by the Obama administration after the far-right Andrew Breitbart smeared her with a selectively edited video, is impressively gracious when looking back on the controversy.
Esteemed and brilliant journalists and scholars Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb and Cornel West each offer invaluable insights about a Black president who of course wanted to represent his community but was the leader of the entire country, and always stressed that in his speeches and his actions. Like all presidents, Obama had to find room for compromise and to take up some causes at the expense of others.
In the final chapter of “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union,” we’re reminded of the arrival of Sarah Palin on the national stage, trotted out by the GOP to attack the president — even as a pre-candidacy Donald Trump was questioning Obama’s birth certificate, his college grades and even whether he wrote his own books. (How rich.) Suddenly, the promise of 2004 as embodied in Senator Obama’s famous speech at the Democratic National Convention … THAT seems like a million years ago.