No, Higher Ground isn’t where the Obamas plan to move to from their beachfront Martha’s Vineyard mansion when they flee the rising ocean levels caused by climate change. It’s the name of their production company, which in May 2018 inked a “high eight-figure” production deal with Netflix to go along with their $65 million contract with Viking Press to write their memoirs. Announcing the Netflix partnership, the former president promised that “these productions won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect, and inspire us all.” (That’s what Oprah always says, too, about her own noble but inert efforts as producer.)
Anyway, a year after their big announcement, the Obamas — apparently not wanting to rush too precipitously into anything — finally made public their first slate of Netflix projects. One is a biopic of Frederick Douglass. (That topic took a year to come up with?) Others include Bloom, a drama series about the “barriers faced by women and by people of color” in New York’s post-war fashion business, and Fifth Risk, a documentary series about “everyday heroes” in government. (Can I write the one on Maxine Waters?)
But the project we’re here to talk about is the just-released We the People. It’s a series of 10 civics lessons for kids, each in the form of a four- or five-minute piece of animation. (Somehow, the word “cartoon” seems inappropriate, given that this show is almost entirely lacking in humor.) Nine of the 10 episodes are music videos featuring original songs performed by some of the biggest names in the music business today. (I know that they’re some of the biggest names in the music business today because I’ve only ever heard of two of them.) The 10th features a poem. Perhaps needless to say, all of these videos exhibit the hyper-Benetton-ad-level diversity — e.g., hijabs galore, and more people in wheelchairs than you’ll ever see in real life — that is de rigueur everywhere in the entertainment industry nowadays.
Unsurprisingly, given the provenance of this thing, much of it is rather aggressively political. In the opener, about “Active Citizenship,” a black girl walks through an eyesore of a ghetto, where she passes boarded-up storefronts (following BLM riots?) and sees a black boy being carted off by white cops. But as Grammy winner H.E.R. sings “Change,” the girl makes use of her rights as an American citizen to “build community and mak[e] change.” How? By encouraging private enterprise? No, by bringing the neighborhood a “People’s Park” (ugh) and sundry government-sponsored improvements. The message: you, too, can be a community organizer! (As I watched this episode, a family member entered the room, stared in puzzlement at the TV, and asked me, “Is this some Black Power thing or what?” “Sort of,” I replied.)
There’s more of the same in Episode 5, wherein pop-rock-country chanteuse Brandi Carlile serenades the First Amendment. “Long live the freedom of speech!” she croons. “It’s a light that shines in the darkness.” So far, so good. She then pays tribute to the freedoms of the press and of assembly, or, as she puts it, “your right to assemble in a peaceful and powerful crowd.” (This series puts a lot of emphasis on power.) “No one,” Carlile continues, “can silence the masses.” Ouch. (This series repeatedly frames the rights of citizens in collective terms.) At the end of the ditty, Carlile skips over the freedom of religion only to extol the separation of church and state.
The fixation on power and community resurfaces in pop-funk, R&B, and hip-hop artist Janelle Monáe’s anthem “Stronger,” in Episode 9: “Every time you think we’re a little weak,” she warbles, “the people get stronger!” Onscreen, marchers carry a banner reading, “Housing is a Human Right”; a poster proclaims, “Stronger Together.” (Yes, Hillary’s campaign slogan.) In Episode 3, rapper Cordae contributes a hymn to the IRS (“Little homie, you better pay your tax”), explaining that tax revenues fund welfare, Medicaid, public housing, and other goodies. In Episode 4, wherein Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) outlines the federal government’s three branches, there’s a visual of a Supreme Court justice in a hijab. Are the animators unaware that this garment symbolizes devotion to a legal system utterly unlike the one they’re purportedly celebrating? Or is this deliberate taqiyya?
A couple of the videos are genuinely commendable. In Episode 2, Adam Lambert of American Idol fame catchily outlines the Bill of Rights. And Episode 6, on immigration, is touching, with pop diva Bebe Rexha (daughter of an Albanian immigrant) delivering a stirring tribute to America entitled “American Citizen”: “I am an American citizen … We believe there’s nowhere better … Freedom and liberty; / my country, ’tis of thee.” What? From Netflix? From Barack Obama (who rejected American exceptionalism) and Michelle Obama (who wasn’t proud of the U.S. until her husband’s election)?
And forget the fatuity of “no human being is illegal”; Rexha presents immigration as involving a legal process: “study, take a test, / say this country is the best.” The video depicts some famous naturalized citizens: “Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austria”; “Eddie Van Halen, The Netherlands.” Above the word “Somalia,” we see a woman in a hijab who looks awfully like Ilhan Omar. But there’s no name. Did she refuse to let her name be used here? If so, was it because she rejects the claim that there’s “nowhere better” than America?
We the People concludes with a poem recital by Amanda Gorman, who read at Biden’s inaugural. In “The Miracle of Morning,” Gorman, 23, ponders the challenge of the pandemic, suggests that “in this suffering we must find solidarity,” and promises that in doing so we will become “the best of beings.” Although it has nothing to do with civics (maybe Gorman misunderstood the assignment), this closing episode’s sentimental utopian collectivism makes it a thematically suitable wrap-up for We the People.
Then again, given what’s being taught nowadays about America, this series could’ve been a hell of a lot worse. It eulogizes protest but not violence; the words “freedom” and “liberty” — and positive images of Old Glory — turn up far more often than one might’ve expected, and the words “patriarchy” and “imperialism” and “white supremacy” not at all. Throughout, it implicitly rejects the currently fashionable idea that America was founded on racism. Indeed, there’s not so much as a hint of the loathing for America’s history and achievements that some of our more notable government heroes tweeted out on the Fourth of July. (Rep. Cori Bush: “This land is stolen land and Black people still aren’t free.”) Remarkably, given today’s toxic atmosphere, the people who made this series didn’t feel compelled to deny the greatness of America and its founders. And that’s something.
Sure enough, We the People turned out to be insufficiently progressive for a couple of early trade-paper reviewers, both of whom were particularly exercised about Rexha’s admirable immigration song. While Variety’s Caroline Framke slammed Rexha for her “unintentionally insidious line” about how immigrants “gotta spend a few years to master the test / take an oath saying you love this country the best,” the Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg accused Rexha of promulgating “stereotypical representations of an It’s a Small World sort.” Well, congratulations to both of them for establishing their Tinseltown bona fides.
I’ll close with one fact that shocked me: after viewing this series, I discovered that it’s aimed at 14- to 18-year-olds — and high-school teachers are talking about using it in social studies classes. And here I’d assumed all along that it was for fourth or fifth graders. Is this really the education level of American teenagers in 2021? If it is, well, at least it helps explain why so many young Americans join Antifa. If this series’ worst moments definitely confirm all the bilge those kids are being fed at school, we can hope that its better bits will nudge a few of them toward respect for their country and its Constitution. Perhaps it’s a sign of just how bad things have gotten that this series, which a few years ago would’ve been recognized by pretty much anybody as a piece of shrill Democratic Party propaganda, today feels almost like it’s politically near the middle simply because it doesn’t explicitly urge America-hatred and statue-toppling.