The HBO Documentary: Obama

In the Pursuit of a More Perfect Union

I just watched the HBO documentary 'Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union', executive produced by Peter Kunhardt, Andi Bernstein, Mona Sutphen, Jelani Cobb and Jacqueline Glover. Obama produced by George Kunhardt, Teddy Kunhardt, Matthew O. Henderson, showcases interviews, conversations among Obama's friends and critics alongside his speeches and interviews.

The complex and often dark racial history of the USA is much in the news these days. I welcome every opportunity to grapple with our history of slavery and the enduring impact it still has on race relations. This chronicle of Barack Obama’s childhood, youth, education, early history and rise in politics is one such opportunity. The three part series examines Obama’s challenging eight-year presidency and how his ascension to the Presidency was a historic step forward for the United States. But what was most interesting to me was how much it exposed the lingering need for issues of racial justice to be addressed. I found this to be a very relevant look at the Obama administration through the lens of 2021.

Watching this gave me a new understanding of the personal obstacles Barack Obama faced on his journey to become the first American president of color (he was elected in both 2008 and 2012 meaning he served as the US President from 2009 to 2017). For example, I particularly enjoyed the sections on his childhood where he talked about some of his early idealisms, his views on race and his struggle with racial identity.

The documentarians skillfully interweave conversations with colleagues, friends, and critics. These are interspersed with his personal speeches and interviews. I particularly enjoyed looking at his childhood through the perspectives of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya. I came away with a greater appreciation of how Obama was spiritually shaped by generations of black leaders and their hopes for a more inclusive America.

Much additional context and insight are provided by the many participants in the documentary:

  • writer Jelani Cobb

  • civil rights legend John Lewis

  • political consultant David Axelrod

  • writer Michael Eric Dyson

  • journalist Laura Washington

  • Pastor Jeremiah Wright

  • journalist Michele Norris

  • New York editor David Remnick

  • civil rights activist Al Sharpton

  • Professor Cornel West

  • civil rights leader Jesse Jackson

  • writer Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • political adviser Valerie Jarrett

  • Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

  • actor Keegan-Michael Key

  • former civil servant Shirley Sherrod

  • journalist David Maraniss

  • Professor Ken Mack

  • speechwriter Jon Favreau

  • advisor Broderick Johnson

  • Representative Bobby Rush

This documentary was released over Obama’s 60th birthday earlier this month. I remember watching him when he was a 43-year-old Illinois state senator deliver the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote. Obama, then looking more like 33 than 43, delivered a short brilliant speech about the virtues of American democracy.

In this speech, which many see as a prelude to his Presidential bid, Obama used his personal history and political asperations as a bridge between past and present civil rights activists. More than that, his rhetoric and vision reframed America from a melting pot to a patchwork quilt of diverse communities that grow stronger as they recognize the common ground of citizenship and dignity that unite them.

Now at age 60, Obama’s hair has turned grayer, he looks even thinner than he did as President and the impact of his time as president can be in seen in the wrinkles and creases on his once unlined face.

This documentary reminded me that for a brief period Obama allowed the world to see America as a place of endless possibilities. As I watched this series I could not help but reflect on the great gulf between that time and now, but I was also reminded of the steps necessary to renew our nation’s democratic faith and confidence in our ability to actually be the country we have always imagined ourselves to be.

I believe that anyone, whether an Obama supporter or not, will benefit from watching “Obama: In the Pursuit of a More Perfect Union”.