Michelle Obama Reflects on Life After the White House in ‘Becoming’
Netflix’s “Becoming” follows former First Lady Michelle Obama as she crisscrosses America promoting her bestselling memoir of the same name. What this small documentary confirms more than anything is what many of us already knew, that she is an extremely likeable person, poised and intimidatingly intelligent. A filmic scrapbook, what the documentary won’t do is go beyond the personality. There are few insights into the actual era of the Barack Obama presidency, but Michelle Obama herself is such an engaging person that it is pleasant enough as a little backstage hang out.
Director Nadia Hallgren follows Obama during the “Becoming” book tour in 2018, as she speaks to vast audiences and interacts with students. Structured like a road trip, Obama revisits childhood memories in Chicago’s South Side. Tagging along for the various stadium arena appearances are close family members like her mother. Elder brother Craig also pops in here and there. While onstage with celebrity interviewers like Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert, or while speaking with Chicago high schoolers, Obama opens up about growing up black and working class. She shares memories about being told by a teacher that she was aiming too high in wanting to attend Princeton, or about her grandfather, an impressive autodidact without degrees who was denied a better life over race and class. She walks through her childhood home, gazes at old family photographs, remembering her father who died of multiple sclerosis. Former President Barack Obama will casually make a cameo as well, joining Michelle onstage and then walking arm-in-arm afterwards. Eventually, Obama will share bits about becoming a historical figure and the pressures of being the first African-American First Family.
“Becoming” is the latest Netflix project made in conjunction with the Obamas’ own company, Higher Ground Productions. So it should come as no surprise that it rarely goes for anything bolder than inspiring pep talks, insightful biographical details and a feel-good nostalgia for an administration so different from the current one. Authorized documentaries will rarely place the lens on the warts. But because the Obama era was so recent and they have only been almost four years out of office, “Becoming” has the charm of providing a document of what it’s like to follow the routine of a major public figure. Space is given to everyone from Obama’s head of security who has been with her for nearly 12 years, to the fashion consultant who helps pick out her wardrobe. The idea of publishing a bestseller may sound fun, but we get a sense of the public speaking skills Obama has honed to perfection. She is a great storyteller onstage who knows just when to inject the right amount of humor when discussing her life. Behind the scenes she listens to music every morning to wake up, and makes fun of her longtime Chief of Staff Melissa Winter for liking Barry Manilow.
The general loneliness of power, the strain of such a high office or her own thoughts on certain world events are never touched upon in “Becoming.” Politics is actually quite absent in this documentary. Never does Obama make any reflections on moments of her husband’s presidency like Syria, the Great Recession, the coup in Honduras, or even the arrival of Trump. Maybe she should not be expected to. What Obama does share about those years of 2009 through 2016 provides insights into the very nature of the responsibility the Obamas felt when entering the White House. She recalls the 2008 campaign when Fox News began spinning every small gesture, like a public fist bump, into some outrageous claim (“terrorist bump”), or unfair critiques about her strong character. Per her recollections, what began as spontaneous public speaking was soon toned down with teleprompters. One great story Obama shares onstage is how once the family moved into the White House, she ordered that servers and workers stop wearing tuxedos. She did not want her daughters raised seeing black workers dressed in the style that cast their forebears in the U.S. as servants. There were also threats and constant racial tension in the culture as the U.S. elected its first black president. An evocative memory also involves having to attend a memorial for the victims of a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and then coming back to Washington to celebrate the Supreme Court finally granting marriage equality.
Of her own personal life Obama uses her experiences as stories of encouragement for those listening, particularly students. Attending Princeton was a revelation when she realized many of the students were not that bright, but were accepted out of their social status. “Affirmative action cuts both ways,” says Obama at one point, describing how minorities get criticized for getting help into universities when the elite with connections do the same. She also can’t help herself and shares about a teacher who scoffed at her going to Princeton, and years later when she returned to the same school as First Lady the principal assuring her, “she doesn’t work here anymore.”
As in other documentaries, Barack Obama himself is a mere distant presence in “Becoming.” He will appear with Michelle onstage and croon some Jay-Z, then compliment her backstage. Obama’s own stories about their first dates are quick, she liked him because he actually had things to say and care about. Of course their lives have already inspired lengthier dramas like the movie “Southside with You” and the limited series “Barry.” As time passes and historians begin their inevitable, iconoclastic work we will get sharper insights into this couple and their role in American history.
Now forever a part of the nation’s story, Michelle Obama finds herself sitting in a room signing many copies of her book while daughter Malia walks over to say hello. Malia and her sister Sasha are curiously absent from this profile, although it is primarily about the book tour. “Becoming” lets us get close to Michelle Obama while keeping its distance. It is endlessly fascinating as a chronicle of life on the road for someone who helped leave a mark on recent American history. Watching Michelle Obama speak before hundreds of people (and there are few too many shots of faces in the audience looking ecstatic or as in religious fervor) is a reminder of what has been lost now at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Crudeness and demagogic ranting has replaced civility. We may not get to know the full story of the Obama years in this documentary, but just spending an hour and twenty nine minutes with Michelle Obama on her book tour is refreshing as we face many more days and hours of the current White House occupant.
“Becoming” begins streaming May 6 on Netflix.