President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on his first day in office on Jan. 21, 2009.
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.