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.
Those forces were evident during the 2008 campaign, where after the addition of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to the ticket, Obama adviser and CNN analyst David Axelrod says, “the tone and tenor of the crowds turned uglier and uglier.”
Still, throughout the documentary, as throughout Obama’s political career, ugliness is balanced by grace and uplift, captured in the tears of Jesse Jackson, the recollections of the late John Lewis, and the look on Oprah Winfrey’s face as Obama delivered his first victory speech.
Even five hours requires plenty of tough choices, but Kunhardt has nicely encapsulated the Obama presidency, both for those who can remember it and generations to come.
“We can disagree with the other side without being disagreeable,” Obama is shown telling the late Tim Russert during an interview. Like so much regarding his life and presidency, the ideal behind those words remains an elusive pursuit.
“Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” will air Aug. 3-5 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.