If you’re feeling sentimental for a time before January 20, we might have the solution: a Barack Obama–thon, courtesy of no less than five networks either set to air or having recently broadcast (and made available on-demand) retrospective specials spanning our 44th president’s eight years in office. So this weekend, rather than stay glued to cable-news coverage of the Trump-administration circus, consider bingeing on the below six documentaries and exaltations, ranked from least- to most-urgent to watch.
6. The End: Inside the Last Days of the Obama White House (CNN On Demand)
Already, high-ranking public servants have rallied around their dissent against Donald Trump, while Press Secretary Sean Spicer trots out in front of the media each day with a tacit “shoot the messenger” sign on his back. But in Last Days, Obama-administration stalwarts, such as his assistant Tina Tchen, practically swoon with accounts of his inspirational top-down leadership. From his closest advisers to the most secretarial role players, The End is a sort of grief exercise for his foot soldiers. Last Days lays bare how this president personally pushed and motivated a group of workers who were wet behind the ears and had been there and back, and left them determined to do more.
5. The Obama Years: The Power of Words (Smithsonian Channel, February 27, 8 p.m.)
Befitting its partner network, Power of Words is the most measured of these six. Interviews with the usual suspects of presidential historians —Douglas Brinkley, Doris Kearns Goodwin et al. — mingle with talking-head reminiscences from Obama’s well-known coterie of advisers (David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, etc.) and help retrace the ex-prez’s trajectory by way of his uncanny oratory, beginning with his now-legendary 2004 Democratic National Convention remarks. What distinguishes Power of Words is its focus on Obama’s eventual team of speechwriters, particularly Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan, both — like their boss — young, hyperliterate, and cautiously optimistic. The film isn’t utterly wanting for lightness (oh, Axelrod and his Caesar salads), but it’s principal effect is to underscore just how much emphasis Obama placed on clear and honest communication.
4. Vice: A House Divided (HBO On Demand)
Images of Congressional discord set to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” can mean only one thing: a politicized Vice production. The media firebrand’s CEO, Shane Smith, wrote and directed this examination of our hyperpartisan climate, and even cleaned up and wore a suit for a sit-down with Obama (though he kept it more casual while interviewing former Speaker of the House John Boehner on his expansive property). What’s compelling about A House Divided (aside from Smith’s signature beard) is that it resists the urge to rest on the laurels of scoring a one-on-one with the then-president. The documentary also turns to pollsters, political reporters, and other insiders ranging from Eric Cantor to Nancy Pelosi to arrive at some kind of precise answer to its central concern, and pulls the fewest punches among these six specials.
3. Through the Fire: The Legacy of Barack Obama (BET On Demand)
Like most of the films discussed here, Through the Fire examines Obama’s impact through a particular lens. In this case, the way in which his initial candidacy and subsequent eight years in office were a surreal roller coaster ride for black America. Van Jones, Russell Simmons, Samuel L. Jackson, India.Arie, and Cory Booker are among the dozens interviewed over nonstop instrumental beats and reams of archival footage. Through the Fire is brisk but urgent, entertaining and — in light of anxiety surrounding what many view as a major cultural stumble in our nation’s choice of successor —somewhat bittersweet. It’s also bracingly honest. Even Jones confesses he expected Obama to throw the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright under the bus. But as the film greatly emphasizes, he didn’t, and he still won.
2. Love and Happiness: An Obama Celebration (BET On Demand)
This White House musical celebration is an apt way to end your Obama-thon and send you soaring into the great unknown of our political future on a literal high note. Love and Happiness finds our former commander-in-chief at his most languid and loquacious, commemorating the memorable portrait of black American leadership he and his wife, Michelle, imprinted on history for the preceding eight years. And it is, more than the other flicks, a true love letter to the First Couple’s glamour, great example, and weakness for a good time. Gospel, hip-hop, and soul by way of Jill Scott, Common, Janelle Monae, De La Soul, and others fill the White House’s South Lawn, but it’s Barack and Michelle who steal the show.
1. Obama: The Price of Hope (Nat Geo On Demand)
For all you would-be wonks out there, Price of Hope is the doc you’ve been pining for. It features exclusive interviews with Obama himself, as he and his cast of cabinet members and advisers attempt to underline how much of a bipartisan struggle the presidency can be, and how fraught his, especially, was. Hillary Clinton also steps in front of Nat Geo’s cameras, as the collective administration takes us through the nitty-gritty of passing the Affordable Care Act, not to mention international matters, including the volatile deposing of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. It’s riveting stuff, and more accessible to the average viewer at a time when, overnight, we’ve all become news junkies. And the prevailing, nuanced message — that being president both emboldened and humbled Obama’s faith in democracy — is hard to shake.