Movies & TV

A Nuanced Look at the Unshakeable Idealism of Barack Obama

Barack Obama, as told by his left-wing critics.
IMAGE HBO
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Eight years after Barack Obama left office, his successor’s efforts to tarnish his legacy have backfired. Donald Trump’s outlandish term in the White House unknowingly succeeded in painting his abhorred predecessor in an almost saintly light. When compared to Trump, Obama is clearly the more presidential of the two, but saint he was not. It's a fact many forget under the cloud of the hate-fueled rhetoric of the last few years, but it’s a sensitive talking point that HBO’s latest documentary, Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union, dares to explore.

The three-part docuseries is a portrait of Obama as we’ve never seen him before: shaken and unsure. Despite the lapses of his administration, particularly in foreign policy, Obama will go down in history as the most eloquent and unflappable president of the U.S. in its nearly 250-year history.

Interestingly, this Obama documentary is told through the lens of his critics, not across the aisle, but from his own side. So it appears. Obama’s presidency was marked by his commitment to walking the tightrope, trying to appease those in red while tempering the far-left of his own party. In HBO’s enlightening new docuseries, we peek into the evaluations made by his friends, advisors, confidants, critics, and opponents, all of whom are Democrat and majority Black. And plenty make critiques of the time he wasted attempting to cooperate with the unwilling right, thereby doing a disserve to the left-wing politicians who were dissatisfied by his ineffective attempts to play it safe.

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In the aftermath of the Trump era, it’s easy to forget that a faction of African-Americans Democrats did not support Obama, at least not wholly. The docuseries examines the experiences and opinions of these very people, which include some of the most respected professors and politicians in Black history.

While this is still very much Obama’s story, we follow the critics' initial reactions to the news of the upstart senator from Chicago's audacity to run for the highest office in the land. We follow Obama’s pastor and his experience getting attacked by the far-right, a Black professor who was arrested at the height of racial tensions during Obama’s term, and the people closest to his wife, Michelle, who was instrumental in bringing the more cautious Black folk onto his side, the latter of which was a curious thing to witness and hear of: a half-Black man not being fully accepted by the community because he was “not Black enough.”

Race is at the core of this documentary, which analyzes how America’s first Black president evaded race issues in his candidacy and first term as president, before the spike in attacks and arrests in young African-American men finally pushed his buttons and unleashed emotions in a man almost notorious for keeping them in check. One moment that will move you in the documentary is the snippets of Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the Charleston church shooting—and his spontaneous singing of “Amazing Grace” in front of a grieving and stunned church congregation.

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By following how race relations changed in the U.S. during his presidency, the documentary also followed how the presidency changed the man, primarily for the better. What started as a critique on Obama almost ended as a critique of his critics and why they couldn’t quite get on board with his unshakeable capacity for hope and idealism. If the history books will remember this president for one thing, it will be for being idealistic, sometimes being too much so. A writer before he was a politician, Obama’s rhetoric has always been spoken in the language of embrace and hope, something that a few might find too ignorant of the bitter realities of America.

There is the ongoing critique that his presidency was almost entirely symbolic as race continues to be an angry topic of discussion in America, but as one journalist pointed out in the HBO documentary, people underestimate the symbols. And it’s inarguable that Obama played the part as a symbol for the pursuit of a more perfect union.

Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union is a through dissection of Obama’s legacy five years after leaving office. The series is not made for an idle watcher, and the nuances of its analysis will make you pause and even provoke you. Love him or hate him, there is no denying Obama was a statesman of the highest order, but one who perhaps overestimated hope—and underestimated hate.

Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union premieres on HBO Go on August 3. 

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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