Documentary filmmaker Peter Kunhardt began working on HBO’s “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” in 2014, while the former president was still in the White House. The director-exec producer and Jelani Cobb, a writer for the New Yorker and exec producer on this three-part docuseries, spent four years researching and discovering rare and never-before-seen archival footage of Obama before filming commenced in 2018. Kunhardt conducted 39 interviews with a wide range of people including Cobb, late Congressman John Lewis, Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Rev. Al Sharpton as well as Rev. Jeremiah Wright during the course of production.
The diverse voices allowed Kunhardt, who previously directed “John McCain: From Whom the Bell Tolls” for HBO, to examine and critique the former president’s personal and political journey, as well as the United States’ fraught racial history. The goal: to look at Obama “through a critical eye, but not get bogged down in the politics of it all,” Kunhardt says.
Cobb says it portrays Obama as “a person who did things right, but also made mistakes” while offering an even-handed assessment of what happened along the way.
The series debuts Aug. 3, the day before the former president turns 60.
Kunhardt and Cobb spoke to Variety about their decision to not interview Obama for the series, Rev. Wright’s candidness and whether or not the former president has seen the series.
There are many talking heads in this docuseries, but Barack Obama is not one of them. Was that intentional or did he declined to be interviewed?
Kunhardt: We made a bunch of trips to the White House and met with his team while he was still in office. The plan was to eventually interview him, but by the time we got down to interviewing people, we realized that we had so much of Obama speaking about himself (via archival footage) that we really didn’t need a new interview. We preferred to take his words from the time periods when he said them.
Some of the people who you interviewed had never spoken on camera about President Obama before. Who were they?
Kunhardt: Reverend Jeremiah Wright had not spoken out since the 2008 (“God damn America”) scandal. He was probably the most reluctant to speak out. We also interviewed Obama’s girlfriend – Genevieve Ahearne — from his days at Columbia University who had not spoken out publicly before.
How did you convince them and the 37 other people you interviewed to speak with you on camera?
Kunhardt: (Obama) was very helpful in that he asked his staff, his friends and other people to cooperate with us. So, that’s one of the reasons we have such a wide range of interviews — because he was supportive of the project.
Some of the interviews, especially the one with professor Cornel West, are surprisingly candid. Were you expecting subjects to be so forthright about Obama?
Kunhardt: The (people) interviewed were open and honest about his story I think partly because of time. It would have been hard for them to talk about him a few years ago and certainly when he was in office, but I think time worked on our side by waiting so long.
Cobb: The people we interviewed about Obama’s early days in Chicago were notably more candid than anything we had heard before about his origins. There was a sense in the public that he came from nowhere because there was a short period of time between being an unknown person, then being a Senator and then being the President. But those people in his early years, they had a lot to say.
In the series, Reverend Wright reveals that after the 2008 scandal broke Obama said to him: “You know what your problem is? As a preacher you have to speak the truth.” I was surprised he divulged that conversation. Were you?
Kunhardt: That was a powerful moment because he didn’t have to say the other side of that statement. There are trade-offs being a politician and Obama, I think, would be the first to acknowledge that and admit that he couldn’t say certain things that his Reverend could, which was probably frustrating to Obama. But he had guardrails around him, and he had to stay within those rails.
John McCain and Sarah Palin are both featured in the series via archival footage from the 2008 presidential campaign. Did you reach out to Palin or anyone in the Republican party for an interview?
Kunhardt: We did not reach to the Republicans because we did not want this series to become a ‘he-said, she-said’ series. There was so much of that during the (2008) campaign. We wanted to dive deep into understanding the story from Obama’s perspective and the people who could help fill in his story. But there was so much noise throughout his campaign and throughout his presidency that we purposely avoided this recreating that noise.
In the series we hear Palin digging into Obama back in 2008. Her rhetoric back then seems like nothing in comparison to what we saw during Trump’s run for office in 2016. When making this series did you feel like the writing was on the wall in terms of Trump’s presidential victory?
Cobb: In watching the film I think there are things that make you go, ‘Hmm.’ If we had only known the clues at that time. So, history serves to enlighten the present and, in this instance, this really relatively recent history has a huge flood light effect on the world we’re living in right now.
Kunhardt: The world “clue” is key. At the time you don’t recognize the clues. The country was so caught off guard when Trump was elected, but if you actually go back and look at the clues leading up to it, it’s not as surprising as it seemed at the time.
Was it a conscientious decision not to make this series in any way a love letter to Obama?
Kunhardt: Yes. We did not want to make some fluff piece and we did not want it to feel like we were speakers for Obama’s story and his point of view. We wanted to look at him through a critical eye, but not get bogged down in the politics of it all. Instead, we tried to dig down deeper to understand where he was coming from and what he was up against.
Cobb: The value of this series was the ability to look at Obama with some distance. His virtues are more obvious now than they were they were before. We didn’t need to remind people of what they missed in him because the subsequent presidency did an amazing job of highlighting what people admired in Obama. So, the real value was looking at him as a human being, as a political actor, as a person who did things right, but also made mistakes, and offering a more even-handed assessment of what happened in those times.
You mentioned earlier that Obama was supportive of the project. Has he seen the series?
Kunhardt: We don’t know. We sent a link to him when we finished the series a couple of weeks ago but we havn’t heard back.
“Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” debuts Tuesday, Aug. 3, on HBO.
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