Watching the new Netflix documentary, “Becoming,” born from Michelle Obama’s memoir of the same name, there is the inescapable feeling that it is, in no small part, a promotional piece. That is, the documentary exists to work in synergistic fashion with the book, operating in a way to promote sales and get the message out. It is not an unvarnished look at the former First Lady.
Whatever trepidations that sense imbues in the viewer are left behind very rapidly when one examines about the message being left by the piece. What director Nadia Hallgren has done is offer up a sensitive, thoughtful, look at the former First Lady of the United States and her burgeoning legacy.
Overly polished? Maybe. But sensitive and thoughtful nonetheless.
Not only does the audience get to see Obama’s family and hear her history, but we also get tales of her time in the White House. We hear her discuss the lessons she’s learned from both her childhood and adulthood and to meet members of her family. Perhaps most importantly though, we are reminded of that all-encompassing feeling of the Obama years – hope.
“Becoming” reminds us that not so long ago there was a President and First Lady in the White House who considered their actions, who wanted to be a part of the country and its citizenry rather than above it, who felt the weight of responsibility and tried their best to bear it rather than shirking duties for which they were either ill-prepared or ill-suited. They were there to inspire change, to cause people to look up, to make the United States and the world better for everyone rather than people who looked a certain way or had dollars enough to line a few pockets.
While there is no question watching the documentary that there is money being made by Michelle Obama with her book and tour, that purpose feels secondary. As we listen to the former First Lady tell her story to crowds big and small, young and old, black and white, we get the deep and abiding sense that she still cares about making the world a better place and that the book, the tour, and the movie are her ways of helping get there.
There are few scenes in the film where we are offered a true behind the curtains look at Obama. Hallgren even goes so far as to cut together answers from Obama’s various interview engagements into single answers. What shines through in these moments is the fact that despite her being in different cities, despite her being interviewed by different individuals, Michelle Obama is prepared and has the same responses to the same questions every time. It is, as with so much in the documentary (although in a different fashion), disappointing and wonderful at the same time.
One of the reasons for the repeated responses comes across later in the documentary – as she is discussing Barack Obama’s running for the White House in 2008, Michelle Obama mentions having to stop speaking off the cuff in public, having to be more scripted because when she wasn’t, she would be torn apart by the press. An example given is her fist-bumping her husband at a rally after introducing him. Somehow this was taken to be a potentially terrorist/angry/violent/anti-American act. It wasn’t. Making such a connection was ludicrous, but that’s the point – Michelle Obama realized—and it was a hard realization—that her words and actions would be twisted to serve others. She had to take control of what she put out.
This documentary and the memoir, then, is clearly, in some way, about her taking that back or the results of taking that back, of her crafting her own message and legacy and future. It makes it obvious why she wouldn’t want to offer too much of a glimpse behind the curtain here – it’s not a message she can control.
This through line isn’t explicitly stated in the movie but it is an obvious one for those who pay attention, and it adds a layer to the work that otherwise wouldn’t be present. What is present—this is a woman who cares deeply for her family, her nation, her history, her future, and the future of those she meets—is wonderful, but not the same.
The Obama White House years, as the film discusses, were ones of hope, ones about looking up and feeling a camaraderie with all people from every walk of life. It is this same pushing forward and helping guide and offering advice that Michelle Obama and “Becoming” provide. It is Michelle and Malia Obama desperate to find a way out of the White House when marriage equality became law so that they could be a part of the celebration in front of their house—after a day of mourning for those killed during a bible study—even if no one knew they were there, rather than having to see it from the inside. It is a great and heartbreaking thing to watch.
Walking away from “Becoming,” one can’t help but shake their head in dismay. We as a nation failed Michelle Obama. We failed her husband. We failed their ideals and everything they fought for. We installed into the White House someone who stood for the direct opposite of every high-minded thought for which they strove; someone who did this with a conscious (and yes, racist) effort. After going high, we put someone in charge who could sink no lower.
We owed them better. Watching “Becoming” is about seeing where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might head for the future. It is both sad and joyous, raggedly heartfelt and distinctly polished, the best of times and the worst.
photo credit: Netflix
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