Though it shares its name with her bestselling book, the new Netflix film Becoming is not an adaptation, exactly, of Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir. Instead, it’s a breezy, sometimes unexpectedly moving documentary that travels with the former first lady along the 34 stops of her book tour, where she fills arenas for Q&As moderated by the likes of Gayle King, Valerie Jarrett, Reese Witherspoon and Stephen Colbert. The film dropped today (May 6).
There’s also the occasional appearance by husband Barack, graciously ceding focus. In perhaps the film’s sweetest moment, the Obamas walk down a bright backstage hallway after one of her stage events. As he slings an arm around her, she asks, “Did it feel like a show that you would want to see?”
For many people, maybe especially now, the answer will be yes. One of her public appearances would be a boon, but in its place, the documentary will do just fine. For better and worse, it sometimes plays like the promotional film for a political career she has sworn never to pursue. Nadia Hallgren (She’s the Ticket) directed.
As much as it’s about speaking, sales and signings, Obama’s on-the-road agenda also included a kind of listening tour. She’s always been a booster and role model for America’s young people, and Becoming includes some of her classroom visits with high-schoolers. She’s particularly nuanced with kids of color dealing with life in the divisive Trump age. “I want you guys to have perspective as you’re going through it,” she says. The implied emphasis is on “through,” a reminder that, as with many eras in U.S. history, this is just a phase to be endured and survived.
A few times, the film leaves Michelle behind, following students with whom she’s spoken to get a sense of their daily lives at school and with family. It’s a nice example of balancing the general message with specific stories.
Some viewers might regret that there’s not more of the biographical background found in the memoir. We see some family photos of Michelle, her parents and brother Craig (who laments that no one should have to deal with being related to “the most popular person in the world”). Michelle and her mom, the stalwart Marian Shields Robinson, tour the old family home on Chicago’s south side. She lovingly discusses her father, who died young with multiple sclerosis, and who “was like God returning home” at the end of the workday, and grandfather Dandy, a man of intelligence and ambition thwarted by the racial politics of his time.
Only once does Michelle focus on the fantastic and horrible fact of the Obama presidency: “I am the former first lady of the United States, and also a descendant of slaves. It’s important to keep that truth right there.” (Her great-great-great-grandmother was an enslaved farmhand in Rex, Georgia.)
While it could easily have used more of this history, Becoming gives us insight into the iron discipline that went into the seemingly effortless grace and style evinced by the first couple as self-conscious race exemplars. Michelle recalls, on the morning that the Obamas left the White House, having to disperse her daughters’ friends after one final sleepover (“Wake up, the Trumps are coming, you’ve got to get up”). On Air Force One, flying away, she sobbed for half an hour from “the release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.”
Obama reminds us that enormous highs and lows sometimes happened on the same day: One morning, the funeral for the eight victims of the Charleston church massacre in South Carolina, and the rainbow-lit celebration of marriage equality that evening back in Washington. Trying to give the slip to the Secret Service, she and daughter Malia tiptoed to the edge of the White House to gaze at the celebrating crowds beyond the fence. It was important to do so, she says, because “I have to have some indicator that all this is worth it, that we are moving this country forward.”
Watching “Becoming,” like one of those seesaw days of the presidency, can be simultaneously inspiring and depressing. Just as we now realize all the mundane activities of daily life that we took for granted, so, too, the documentary reminds us how privileged we were to take extraordinary, intelligent, empathetic people like the Obamas as givens. It reminds us of what we have lost but inspires us to remember that we can draw on the best of ourselves again in whatever future comes.
“The energy that’s out there is much better than what we see [in the news],” she says onstage during her conversation with Colbert, speaking of the many people she met on her book tour. “I wish people didn’t feel badly, because this country is good. People are good.” Those are the sorts of words we need to hear, and believe, right now.
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