HBO’s ‘Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union’ Catches Imperfect Dreams and Rude Awakenings

Countries have borders presided over by governments composed of citizens, flawed, inconsistent, and greedy. A utopian society is impossible because utopia is defined quite differently by individual utopians. It is an exciting idea because it is as unattainable as an unblemished gem. There is nothing more boring than perfection, so the few warts which mar director Peter Kunhardt’s “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” give it a compelling character. 

As president, Barack Obama embodied an American dream. It was an ambitious one, promising an idea of hope for a large part of the country. It was a glorious lullaby which brought comfort to the uncomfortable, unseen and unheard, until they woke up mute, overlooked and in distress. In real life most people don’t remember their dreams. Nightmares, however, don’t go away.

Part 1 of the three-part, HBO documentary series sets up the dream. It centers on Obama’s 2008 speech on race, spending eight minutes on it. Author Michael Eric Dyson tags it as Obama’s “tremendous coming out party.” The documentary backtracks to show Obama’s arc from a community organizer in Chicago to his run for the state and then the U.S. Senate. But the foundation is laid out as if preordained, with nothing but Hillary Clinton to stop it. The presidential hopeful warned America has “no choice” but to pursue a more perfect union. The one written “Two hundred and twenty-one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street,” which Obama says, “was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.” 

The 44th president didn’t see “a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a white America, a Latino America and an Asian America. There’s the United States of America.” This will ultimately keep people up at night over the course of the documentary, but the opening promise is worth sleeping through. 

Although the Obamas aren’t interviewed for the series, the former president controls the narrative. He is backed by his personal circle, including Shirley Sherrod, who was fired by the administration. They all stick to party lines and talking points. Youthful energy, brilliance and strategy put a Black man with a Muslim name in the White House. The fairy tale story of how Barack met Michelle is further mythologized by people who weren’t there. It is interesting to note that the documentary devoted to Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” aired on Netflix, while this is an HBO production. Barack has spent more public time on the airwaves with Bruce Springsteen lately, let the conspiracy theoretics begin.

Amid the dreamers we see Jesse Jackson, John Lewis and Oprah Winfrey, whose reaction reflects more than half a nation’s reaction. “I am the son of a Black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” Obama says in the 2008 speech. “I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.” The first rude awakening comes as experts question whether Obama is “Black enough.” 

“You know, he made that statement: there’s not a Black America, a white America, there’s the United States of America,” New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb says in the documentary. “Now that’s not true. There’s totally a Black America and a white America and there’s a Latino America and a Gay America. There’s a poor America and an America that’s disproportionately incarcerated.” 

The documentary makes it clear that the divide, which comes from unity, dogs Obama from his earliest successes, and fed his appeal as much as it set him apart from his own constituency. One of only four Black students out of 1,600 high school students at Punahou School in Honolulu, Obama did not begin writing his speech about race on a plane to Philadelphia in 2008. 

When the then-Illinois state Sen. Obama was about to address a 2004 gathering at the Caucus of Black Delegates, he warned the Rev. Al Sharpton, his keynote, would be “more expansive and unifying than a lot of people are used to.” The lifelong activist acknowledges the schism. “Don’t worry, senator. You do what you have to do tomorrow night because you have to win U.S. Senate,” Sharpton remembers telling Obama in the documentary. “’I’m gonna take care of the brothers and sisters tonight.’ I think that kind of began a relationship where he and I understood that we played different roles.”

The next subliminal wave to skewer REM sleep comes in the second part. This covers his presidential run and is a Faustian thriller. Forced “to define his identity along racial lines,” to the detriment of other important issues, the presidential hopeful is forced to give in and give up some of his dreamscape to avoid night terrors. Thirty years of sermons, delivered by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright at Chicago’s Trinity United Church, were edited down to two minutes of incendiary sedition and the media demonized Obama’s roots as radical. On that basis, Rev. Wright is disinvited from appearing onstage in Springfield, Illinois, when Obama announced he was running for president in 2007. It’s more frightening than “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Union Theological Seminary Prof. Cornel West points out how Obama was not quite in the unique situation he thought he was. Urging the president to combat poverty by going after Wall Street scofflaws, West points out how the Civil Rights laws were signed by white presidents, and he had an obligation which went beyond personal ethnicity. “I don’t think there was any way possible for Barack Obama as president to ever live up to the expectations of the African American community,” Alvin Love, of Chicago’s Lilydale Baptist Church, says. “They expected him really to undo 400 years of injustice with the stroke of a pen.” 

The news of Trayvon Martin’s death also ties to the 2008 speech which centers the documentary. “I am married to a Black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters,” he said in the speech. With Martin’s killing, he points out his own son would probably have been just as profiled. 

The most frightening aspect of the documentary is the idea that Obama’s election meant that the country was what journalist Michele Norris calls a “post-racial society.” It implies things are now all right in a world where Mitch McConnell could still mandate a sacred vow to make Obama a one-term president. The documentary inadvertently shows how Keegan-Michael Key, acting as Obama’s “anger translator,” fulfilled promises the first Black president could never keep. Not when having to keep a straight face while South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson interrupts joint sessions of Congress to yell “you lie,” or swing-state politicians could steal photo-ops by wagging their fingers in the face of the leader of the free world on an airport tarmac.

One of the best segments is the discussion on how Obama was the first president to cry, and did so on several occasions and in several locations. He almost wept over children between the ages of five and ten years old who were the victims of school shootings. The Sandy Hook sequence is wrenching, but also cathartic, as Obama admonishes congress and says it is “a shameful day for Washington.” The series is loaded with such days, and further shames. The rise of white nationalism, and the Republicans’ giving the vice-presidential candidacy to Sarah Palin. Fake news was always good copy and talk of “death panels” and the rise of birtherism, set the stage for Trump’s ascendancy.

This is probably as close to a definitive document on Barack Obama’s life and presidency as we are likely to get. The documentary opens on the plane to Philadelphia where Obama would give his “speech on race.” It ends as a reminder his successor in the White House went out of his way to try to erase the legacy. An African American Presidency didn’t end America’s historic acceptance of systemic racism. It burst open the doors to allow small increments of change. Peter Kunhardt gives a fairly generic biography of Obama, but an insightful take on the bitter ambiguities of race in politics. 

Trump twisted an American first into a fight between opposing sides, unblurred black and white, and broke the unity which led to “A More Perfect Union.” Obama’s ongoing legacy is to continue to force the country to examine its painful history. Obama did not want to be pigeonholed as the Black president. “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” ultimately underscores why he may never escape.

Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” airs Aug. 3 – Aug. 5 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.