Entering the media battle over Obama's legacy

A film titled "Barry" about his search for identity as student at Columbia University is now streaming on Netflix. A two-hour National Geographic documentary on what he did and did not accomplish during his eight years in office debuts Jan. 15. And a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay titled "My President Was Black" is the January/February cover story of The Atlantic.

The media battle over the image and legacy of Barack Obama is on.

A film titled "Barry" about his search for identity as a student at Columbia University is now streaming on Netflix. A two-hour National Geographic documentary on what he did and did not accomplish during his eight years in office debuts Jan. 15. And a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay titled "My President Was Black" is the January/February cover story of The Atlantic.


Meanwhile, the president himself is now telling friendly interviewers like former aide David Axelrod that he could have beaten Donald Trump if he had run in 2016 and that the sweeping loss of Democratic power on Election Day from state houses to the White House should not be interpreted as a rejection of his presidency and "vision."

Never one to shy away from a fight, Trump has countered Obama's claim that he could have won with a tweet saying, "No way."

So much for the pledge both sides made to a nice-nice period of transition?

But a president's legacy is too precious and carefully constructed to be nice about, especially for a president as concerned about history as Obama, who has been warning his opponents since at least 2008 that they are going to be on "the wrong side of history." Obama has always been careful about trying to control his image through access with friendly journalists, TV interviewers and authors. All presidents do — straight through to the millions of dollars they raise for presidential libraries that tell their versions of history.

If the Netflix film and Coates' article are indicative, it appears that the debate about Obama's life and legacy is going to be steeped in identity, race and the culture wars that have come to so inflame passions and divide the nation during his years in office.

As entertainment, "Barry" has the look and feel of a TV movie of the week back in the days when networks made countless movies of the week because it was seen at the time as a cost-effective way of programming (pre-reality TV).

But "Barry" isn't as much about entertainment as it is about race, identity and myth-making.

It's a hero quest, with young Barry dropped into the caldron of crime and strife known as New York City in the 1980s, unsure of who he was and where he fit in. He was tested during that time of passage, and he emerged, bloodied but triumphant, as the man America would come to know as Barack.

The film starring Devon Terrell and directed by Vikram Gandhi covers only a few months in 1981 when Obama transferred from Occidental College to Columbia University. He lives in a neighborhood only a few blocks from the campus. But symbolically, the block he lives on looks to be a long way from the Ivy League with its markers of poverty, violence and crime.

"Barry" gives viewers that canvas as a backdrop to explore the inner tension Obama is experiencing as the son of a white, American mother and black, African father. He has only met his father once, and the film uses his effort to establish a correspondence with his father as a barometer of personal growth, a source of viewer empathy for the 20-year-old protagonist and a window to some of his feelings and thoughts.

He's nicknamed "Invisible" by one of his fellow basketball players on a neighborhood court when he's seen reading Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," a seminal text on black identity, while waiting to join the game. But he himself announces that he doesn't fit in with some elements of urban life after attending a party where he gets punched out.

The film is constantly working this yin and yang. After getting punched at the party by a black man, Obama walks back to the Columbia campus, where a white security guard demands to see his ID. Ultimately, a white classmate vouches for him and defuses what was looking to be a racially charged confrontation. But it's the same student who earlier asked Obama in class why "it's always about slavery" with him.

The end of the film finds Obama walking out of a country club wedding party for the sister of his white girlfriend, a composite character. This world and that relationship — as intense as the latter had become — are not for him either.

Going back through my notes, I feel like there is hardly a moment in this film that isn't about race or identity in one way or another.


I felt the same way about Coates' cover story in The Atlantic each of the two times I read through it.

From the title, I expected it to be about race, but I also wanted to see how Coates handled facts in his final assessment of Obama's presidency. Facts matter — as some are finally coming to appreciate in the wake of an election marked by propaganda, disinformation and fake news.

Coates, a Baltimore native, does give readers some fact-based assessment.

"He remade the nation's health-care system," Coates writes of Obama. "He revitalized a Justice Department that vigorously investigated police brutality and discrimination, and he began dismantling the private-prison system for federal inmates. Obama nominated the first Latina justice to the Supreme Court, gave presidential support to marriage equality, and ended the U.S. military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, thus honoring the civil-rights tradition that had inspired him."

But that block of information is preceded in the same paragraph by: "Yet despite this entrenched racial resentment, and in the face of complete resistance by congressional Republicans, overtly launched from the moment Obama arrived in the White House, the president accomplished major feats."

And it is followed in the next paragraph by: "Obama was born into a country where laws barring his very conception — let alone his ascendancy to the presidency — had long stood in force. A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama — a black man with deep roots in the white world — was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable."

In other words, the facts are presented completely within the context of race.

I am not criticizing such analysis. Maybe any discussion of Obama's accomplishments and legacy should be contextualized by race. Can you factor race out of any discussion on the larger issues of American life? I wonder, though, if Obama himself might prefer the chance to go head to head purely on accomplishments with all the white presidents who preceded him.

"Obama: The Price of Hope," a two-hour National Geographic documentary, feels surprisingly even-handed despite a lineup of talking heads that includes only two whom I would consider critical of the president in any significant way.

"Obama's presidency has changed America, but not in the way he had hoped," viewers are told in voice-over. "Instead of bipartisan cooperation, he has confronted a polarized and paralyzed Congress that has struggled to pass any major legislation after his second year in the White House. His promises on gun control and immigration have not been fulfilled."


Despite that failure, the filmmakers say, "The optimism that characterized Obama's campaign of 2008 was still visible" when they interviewed him this year.

But in contradiction of what Obama told Axelrod in a recent podcast about voters not rejecting his "vision," the National Geographic production concludes: "In November 2016, Obama's vision of America was rejected by the voters."

The film's final words: "With the support of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, President Trump now begins the task of dismantling Obama's legacy."

Make no mistake about it: This is war. And we are going to see it fought out every day and night in coming weeks on cable news, the edit and op-ed pages of newspapers and in magazine pieces like "My President Was Black." At least until the next draft of history arrives with the books on who and what Obama meant to America and the world.

Viewing details

"Obama: The Price of Hope" premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 15 on the National Geographic channel.

"Barry" streams on Netflix.