Review: 'Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union' a Portrait of the Icon

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 3, 2021

Remember intelligence? Civility? Actual public service in the Before Times? Watch HBO's three-part documentary about Barack Obama for a deep dive into how he became, and remains, an American icon.

Many notable interviews — including with Barack and Michelle Obama themselves — plus a fascinating array of archival clips fuel this dynamic doc. Barack's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech propelled him into the zeitgeist, instantly making an impression in a country "stained by the original sin of slavery." Episode One unspools the fascinating story of that trajectory, and provides an opportunity to revisit his peerless oratory.

Much of his story is known: Kenyan father and Kansan mother, who divorced when he was two. Raised in Hawai'i, spent time in Indonesia. He grew up rather unrooted, not really knowing his father (who died when he was 20), but adoring his mother and her parents. He relocated to Chicago after Harvard law school (where he broke ground as the first Black president of the Law Review) for legal and activism work. He made the Windy City his home base, largely due to his love of hometowner Michelle.

The documentary focuses on how and why the man is so singular and special. Chicago certainly shaped the man. He had the skin color but not the cultural background of other African Americans. Church leaders like Reverend Jeremiah Wright taught him the vital role of the spiritual community, and Barack visited many churches until he found his own. Crucial Chicago journalists like Laura Washington talk about the city's hunger for more Black leadership after Mayor Harold Washington's historic win, "a message to the African American community that it's their turn for access and power."

Barack's experiences created a superior, wise, and compassionate public servant. His leadership with Project Vote earned him intimate knowledge of the importance of grassroots activism in the democratic process, as did his subsequent work as an Illinois state senator, where he "changed a lot of minds but not votes." He taught civil rights at the University of Chicago and worked at a law firm, all while publishing his first memoir, "Dreams From My Father." The greatest gift from his mother, he says, was her sense of empathy.

When Barack entered the national stage, his "Blackness" continued to be questioned, along with his African name: "When your name is Barack Obama, you don't get any free votes," he notes. (Understandably, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates applauds that "reclamation of identity.") As a U.S. senator, only the third African American since Reconstruction, he noticed an indifference from Washington after 2005's Hurricane Katrina response, "a visual reminder of the disposability of Black lives," observes journalist Jelani Cobb. Many note Barack's tirelessly aspirational values in the face of racism and other adversities, and his speeches on that topic informed another book, "The Audacity of Hope."

Barack's work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took him to Africa and his father's Kenyan homeland, where he was mobbed like a rock star. Michelle was surprised at the outsized response, a kinetic reaction to his emergence as a global leader. Congressman John Lewis, in one of his final interviews here, then encouraged him towards the presidency: "Run, Mr. Obama, run."

President Barack Obama repeats that "in no other country on Earth is my story possible," yet this feature successfully shares the reasons for the rise of this shepherd to our more perfect union.

HBO's three-part documentary "Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union" premieres over three nights starting August 3.

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at