Television audiences don’t turn to the Biography Channel for the final say on a presidential candidate, but even by the channel’s standards their examination of Sen. Barack Obama comes up woefully short.
It may not be fair to call Biography: Barack Obama a glorified campaign ad, but suffice to say the senator’s chief media strategist gets the most screen time of all the talking heads assembled.
Don’t expect the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, or other explosive Obama allies to make many appearances here.
The special won’t air until late summer/early fall, but it’s being given a DVD release July 3 in Wal-Mart stores to let people get to know the man who may very well become the 44th president of the United States.
Even die-hard Obamamaniacs won’t learn much new, or helpful, about his stances on key issues. Critics complain the senator’s “Change” motif is free of real content, but it sounds downright philosophical compared to the lack of detail here.
The story begins, where else, with the senator’s coming out party — the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
There, the untested, unknown state senator delivered a hopeful speech filled with the same unity message the country would hear much more of four years later.
The special then reverses course to share how Obama’s parents first met. We meet the couple through old pictures, learning how their interracial coupling yielded a single child, Barack Hussein Obama.
Young Obama spent his first few years in Hawaii, but he wouldn’t stay there long. He later lived in Kenya and Indonesia before returning stateside. That familial instability marked his childhood years. His mother and father split while Barack was only a child, and later his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in the U.S. The constantly shifting of homes, plus a gnawing realization that his skin color made him different, took hold.
Identity struggles marked his teen years. Was he black? White? Regardless, he had trouble fitting in. His home life didn’t help. While the special strains to avoid painting Obama’s father in a negative light, it’s clear he made very little effort to get to know his son. And his mother’s temporary abandonment clearly didn’t help.
While presidential hopeful Bill Clinton shocked some — and amused others — with his, ‘I didn’t inhale” confession, Obama’s drug use is just another part of his biography.
Obama complains of dealing with racism in his teen years, but the special can’t give us any examples to help us better understand his plight. He felt a growing affinity for those in poverty, yet he attended reputable schools, always wore clean, crisp clothes in his pictures, and, to the evidence on display here, looks to have had a middle class upbringing save time spent in impoverished Indonesia.
A trip back to Kenya in Obama’s mid-20s seems to have set his life course anew. We’re told it’s there that he realized he was following in the footsteps of a father he barely knew — helping others like his dad did by returning to Kenya.
The biography remains at arm’s length from its subject matter. Archived interviews with Obama and his wife, Michelle, patch some of the story’s holes, while only a few Obama family members spoke to Biography directly to fill in the rest. Obama is given a chance to speak, but chiefly through archived material. Viewers won’t even see enough examples of what Obama is best known for — his soaring oratories.
Biased voices like legal scholar Lawrence Tribe, who describes Obama in ridiculously glowing terms, and commentary from Obama’s media chief David Alexrod makes sure the narrative stays on the senator’s side.
Just how did Obama endear himself to his controversial Chicago church and its fiery pastor, Rev. Wright? The only time we see of Rev. Wright is courtesy of a marriage snapshot — and then we only see the back of his head.
The special ends with Obama’s star still on the rise, and his presidential run just beginning. But the DVD offers an update section that gives us a brief recap of his march toward the Democratic presidential nomination.
Finally, some negatives creep in, although the change in tone is so jarring it might as well have been left out. We see a snippet of the Rev. Wright controversy and learn how comments Obama made regarding people who “cling” to guns and religion cause the senator serious heartburn.
Obama’s life is an American success story like few others. The child, multiracial to his family’s core, walked step by step up this culture’s ladder to where he stands today, near the country’s highest rung.
It’s material begging for a worthy documentary, one viewers of all party lines can appreciate.