How the Myth of Barack Obama Overtook the Man (and the Politician)

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2021-08-18 23:27Z by Steven

How the Myth of Barack Obama Overtook the Man (and the Politician)


Justine Smith
Montreal, Quebec

From Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union (2021), dir. Peter Kunhardt (image courtesy HBO)

A new HBO film introduces a level of nuance to its depiction of the president that’s been sorely lacking in most portrayals.

What is “home” in the American imagination? Politicians often cite this ideal. Will our “doors” be open or closed? What do our “neighbors” look like? In the introduction to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff describes the home as “where we know and where we are known, where we love and are loved. Home is mastery, voice, relationship, and sanctuary: part freedom, part flourishing … part refuge, part prospect.” Barack Obama promised this image of home, preaching that the United States could pursue unity and love for all. His very presence as a Black man on the world stage signaled a cultural shift that made it seem, if only briefly, that a tide was turning and the US was ready to grapple with its racism. For many, he was a symbol of progress. To others, he was a conniving invader, a covert socialist/communist/terrorist, or even the antichrist. Both images leave his actual humanity behind. What happens when a person becomes a symbol?

The new HBO film Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union looks at his life and work with a level of nuance that’s rare for a mainstream documentary. Still, like most Obama movies, the focus remains firmly on his social and cultural impact rather than his policy. “People underestimate the value of symbols,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argues at one point. Undeniably, Obama himself catered to and was well aware of his symbolic importance. And most films about him, made by a sympathetic media — By the People, The Final Year, The Way I See It, etc. — cater to his image as a historic groundbreaker. Even the Michelle Obama biography Becoming portrays the former first family as beacons of hope in a dark time…

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