"In a world of shoddy rhetoric and bad faith arguments, few observations are shoddier and made in worse faith than the one that says the election of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States marked the end of America’s legacy of systemic racism or proved that such systemic racism either never existed or existed only in the distant past," says Daniel Fienberg. "It’s an argument that pundits and politicians whip out as 'proof' that reparations are unnecessary or that critical race theory is evil. It’s an argument that’s systemically (see what I did there?) but inefficiently eviscerated in HBO’s three-part, six-hour documentary Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union. Of course, nobody who would ever make that argument is going to watch a single second of a three-part, six-hour HBO documentary about Barack Obama, and nobody with an interest in seeing that argument eviscerated is going to feel like they learned all that much from Peter Kunhardt’s approach here, which is half a provocative and complicated exploration of the role of race in Obama’s political career and half a poorly sourced, by-the-numbers, generic biography. That first mode makes for an interesting and sometimes provocative documentary. The second is perplexingly distracting and unnecessary. And you can’t get one without the other."
In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union serves as a reminder of surprisingly recent history: "Tracking Obama’s youth, his rise in politics, and his presidency, the three-part film — which features many on-camera talking heads, but not Obama himself — makes an argument for the 44th president’s importance on two fronts," says Daniel D'Addario. "There’s the symbolic meaning of a Black man occupying the highest office in the land, thus breaking a longstanding barrier and providing a powerful example. And, too, there is the potency and possibility of such a role in America’s cultural life being occupied by a person who believes in complexity. Both, now, seem distant."
Filmmaker Peter Kunhardt began working on In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union in 2014 when Obama was still in the White House: Kunhardt and New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb spent four years researching and discovering rare and never-before-seen archival footage of Obama before filming commenced in 2018. Kunhardt then interviewed 39 people, including the late Congressman John Lewis, to examine and critique the former president’s personal and political journey, as well as the United States’ fraught racial history. The goal was to look at Obama “through a critical eye, but not get bogged down in the politics of it all,” Kunhardt says.