If you were looking for a representative American who best embodied the narrative of the hero quest and some of the tensions and contradictions in national life today, it would be hard to find anyone who fit the bill better than former President Barack Obama.
As he himself said of his life in a landmark 2008 speech focused on race, “I am the son of a Black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. 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. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. 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. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
Emmy-Award-winning director Peter Kunhardt opens the three-part, HBO documentary series “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” with video of then-candidate Obama on an airplane headed to Philadelphia to give that speech. Obama is shown in close-up, pen in hand, working on the document that would come to be known in some quarters as his “speech on race.”
After 45 seconds on the plane, Kunhardt cuts to Obama at the lectern delivering it.
“‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,’” Obama begins quoting the preamble to the Constitution.
“Two hundred and twenty-one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy,” he says. “The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.”
From there, he goes on to locate his candidacy in the tradition of those trying to redeem that past: “This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this presidential campaign — to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
The choices made in opening the film this way show the skill of Kunhardt and his team. In terms of engaging viewers right out of the box, putting them on the plane with Obama in this private moment signals that the documentary will go backstage to places some viewers might never have seen or heard about despite all the films, specials and other biographies of him.
Beyond that storytelling technique, putting the focus on this speech about race and the central role it plays in this nation’s life and Obama’s presidency suggests this biography is intended to resonate with and help illuminate the reckoning on race in which this nation is now engaged. And it does.
Kunhardt allows Obama to lay out the narrative of his life and career in his own terms ― to an extent. He uses other archival films, videos, news reports, interviews and speeches with Obama himself describing his past. But in almost every case, the filmmaker then brings in people who were there with Obama who offer their version of events or perspective on him at certain periods of his life.
While the term talking heads is often used with some derision, I think this is where the real power and credibility of some of the best documentaries resides. And this HBO production is no exception. I would stack some of the talking heads here up against the best assembled by the master of this documentary staple, PBS filmmaker Ken Burns.
The list here includes: New Yorker magazine staff writer Jelani Cobb, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Rev. Alvin Love, Union Theological Seminary Prof. Cornel West, Illinois Rep. Bobby L. Rush, author Michael Eric Dyson, New Yorker editor David Remnick, the NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill and political consultant David Axelrod.
Part 1 takes Obama to the speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that put him on the map. I thought it was going to end there on that high. But Kunhardt cuts back and forth from moments of Obama electrifying the crowd in the convention hall with his speech to talking heads analyzing and recontextualizing some of his words.
One of the speech’s most widely quoted moments found Obama saying, “There is not 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.”
Kunhardt takes viewers from video of Obama saying those words, to Cobb, saying, “You know, he made that statement there’s not a Black America, a white America, there’s the United States of America. 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 disproportionally incarcerated. There are all of those things. But you also have to understand he was speaking aspirationally, that people wanted to belong to a country in which those were not permanent and impermeable distinctions.”
That’s the kind of distinctions talking heads in this documentary routinely make.
Viewers will also hear the Rev. Wright recounting how Obama disinvited his pastor from appearing onstage with him in Springfield, Illinois, on the day he announced for president in 2007. As controversial as some of the Rev. Wright’s sermons had become in the media madness of that election, it is not one of Obama’s better moments.
And that’s just a couple of the more widely known voices in the film. At almost every point in the chronology of Obama’s life, the filmmaker also includes lesser-known voices that help us understand the man.
From Punahou School in Honolulu, classmate Anthony Peterson says, “There were only four Black students out of 1,600 students at the high school that year … We talked about school. We talked about girls. We talked about whether the non-Black girls at our school, which was all the girls at our school, would ever date us … We were used to being in situations where we were the only Black person there, for we were bridging two cultures … We had a standing meeting about once a week, and we called our standing meeting the Ethnic Corner, which was tongue in cheek.”
You hear Peterson talking about the ways in which he and Obama explored those issues of race and identity in their teen years, and you realize Obama didn’t start writing his speech about race on the plane to Philadelphia in 2008. He had been writing it for decades as he came of age. And as hard as his successor in the White House tried to erase his legacy, we are wiser and richer as a nation for the knowledge the 44th president gleaned on his journey to the White House and the vision he shared from that stage of what we could be.
The documentary can be seen on multiple HBO channels and HBO Max.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter:@davidzurawik.