Barack Obama, Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union, Peter Kunhardt, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Barack Obama, Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union

HBO’s ‘Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union’: TV Review

HBO’s ‘Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union’: TV Review

7/30/2021 7:10:00 PM

HBO’s ‘Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union’: TV Review

Peter Kunhardt ’s three-part documentary examines Barack Obama ’s rise to the presidency and the role race played in shaping his political identity, achievements and legacy.

The Bottom LineGeneric as an all-purpose biography, but insightful when it focuses on race.Airdate:9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3Director:Peter KunhardtThat first mode makes for an interesting and sometimes provocative documentary. The second is perplexingly distracting and unnecessary. And you can’t get one without the other.

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The first two installments ofIn Pursuit of a More Perfect Unionfall mostly into that second category. After opening with Obama’s March 2008 Philadelphia speech on race, in which he used the preamble to the Constitution and the burgeoning controversies surrounding Jeremiah Wright to pivot into a wide-reaching address about the many racially tinged conversations floating around his campaign, the first part of the documentary follows Obama from childhood to his decision to run for president. The second is built around the 2008 presidential campaign and his election. After two very linear and point-by-point chapters, the third part then looks, in an almost amorphous blur, at the complicated legacy of the Obama presidency, its successes and failures and the subsequent backlash that was spearheaded by Donald Trump and led to his ascension.

So many pieces of Obama’s biography are familiar because, well, he has written and talked about them extensively. As essential as it is to understand the impact of his biracial parentage and his childhood stops in Hawaii and Indonesia, chances are pretty good that if you care about those things you already know about them, and you won’t find anything even slightly new here.

On the basic biographical side, Kunhardt’s access is simply thin. Other than the ex-president’s half-sister, who makes a couple of brief appearances, nobody named Obama actually appears in the doc. It’s bizarre how heavily the first two episodes rely on one or two major Barack Obama interviews with other people. A couple of

60 Minutesinterviews from early phases of his career are so close to the spine of this documentary that you may find yourself wishing you could just go watch (or rewatch) those interviews instead. A few Obama friends show up, offering mostly simple stories with so little personality or detail that none will need to worry about any post-interview awkwardness at their next Obama dinner party.

Though the people closest to Obama stick to party lines about his youthful brilliance and how it manifested itself at every stage of his development, the documentary isn’t pure hagiography. The most interesting parts, then, involve people who might not have been close enough to Obama to speak here with a complete filter, or people discussing the few topics that haven’t been endlessly reported over the past 20 years.

You can tell that Illinois’ Rep. Bobby Rush, for example, is still hurt that Obama ran against him in a congressional primary, and also that he’s a little cocky about handing Obama his lone electoral defeat. He’s not going to come out and cackle about it, but you can tell. Rush is central to the documentary’s depiction of Obama’s ambition. You can tell, too, that pastor Wright, probably the most interesting of the documentary’s talking heads, is still frustrated and hurt by Obama’s need to distance himself during the 2008 campaign. Although he doesn’t express his pain explicitly, enough is evident to illustrate the choices Obama made as he was defining himself for different segments of America.

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It’s impressive how well Shirley Sherrod, fired by the Obama administration in a knee-jerk reaction to a blatantly doctored video disseminated by Andrew Breitbart, keeps her feelings of betrayal inside. But those feelings are just visible enough to show the ways the Obama presidency was often derailed by the same people who point to the Obama presidency as evidence that all’s hunky-dory with America.

Read more: Hollywood Reporter »

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