On the official White House website, one can find detailed bios of America’s 42 first ladies. Most open with some variation on the phrase “So-and-So was the wife of President Such-and-Such” — e.g., “Mary Ann Todd Lincoln was the wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.” But not Michelle Obama’s. Her entry begins, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is a lawyer, writer, and the wife of the 44th President, Barack Obama.”
Lawyer first, writer second and then wife.
Most of the audiences who check out Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming” on Netflix will be tuning in out of interest in her role as “the rock of our family,” as Barack described her at his inauguration — or else as “a Black woman to be admired,” to quote Ava DuVernay, introducing 2017’s awestruck essay collection “The Meaning of Michelle.” But it is a different identity, that of “writer,” which fuels director Nadia Hallgren’s softball portrait of the former FLOTUS.
“Becoming” accompanies Michelle Obama on the 34-city book tour that followed the publication of her memoir of the same name. The documentary was initiated and overseen by the Obamas’ own production company, Higher Ground Prods., and is being distributed by Netflix, which has a business arrangement with the Obamas. As such, it won’t surprise anyone that it plays like an extended promotional video, a cross between close-contact hero worship and inspirational infomercial.
There are no big revelations here, no gotcha moments or intimate scenes in which Hallgren’s subject lets down her guard, but the target audience hardly expects anything tougher. Far more than the memoir, the film presents a manicured version of the way Michelle Obama sees herself — and yet, even such a carefully image-managed impression can be telling, since it diverges so significantly from the way the world perceives her.
“Becoming” intercuts between concert-style footage from various live shows (more reaction shots of the nearly all-female arena crowd than coverage of Obama being interviewed onstage), vérité glimpses of her backstage or in transit, and from-the-sidelines interactions with fans (with tangential asides to follow several young women she inspires), connected by the bare minimum of biographical background, family photos and B-roll. Hallgren evidently presumes that viewers either already have read Obama’s book or could easily pick up a copy if they want to know more, which makes the film feel like the literary equivalent of a DVD bonus feature.
Between 2008 and 2016, Michelle Obama made it a priority to address and encourage the nation’s young people, and her commitment to that mission continues to this day. Challenging the idea of affirmative action, the Harvard Law School grad — who is a descendant of slaves — tells Gayle King in one of her many celebrity-hosted Q&As, “I have been at probably every powerful table there is in the world. … I am coming down from the mountaintop to tell every young person that is poor and working-class and has been told, regardless of the color of your skin, that you don’t belong, ‘Don’t listen to them!’ They don’t even know how they got at those seats.” By speaking truth to power, she motivates those who recognize themselves in her, who identify with her story.
Before Barack Obama was elected, his wife accompanied him on the campaign trail, giving candid speeches. Her words were scrutinized so closely by the media that Michelle Obama stopped speaking off the cuff, she recalls. And yet, this lawyer, writer and wife clearly has strong opinions, revealing herself to be more outspoken now than she was during her husband’s eight years in office, when they were bombarded with conspiracy theories, lies and bigotry.
“I was just waking up to the truth of who we can be, so ready to assume the worst in people,” she explains. Barack Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, has developed his own antagonistic strategy for dealing with the press — which, while hardly “fake,” is so far from objective or unbiased that Trump’s accusation serves to justify his own unfiltered stream of falsehoods. Of course, Michelle Obama famously had a different philosophy: “When they go low, we go high” — a mantra that was not only classy but necessary.
In “Becoming,” the book, Obama makes plain that race was always an issue in the way that she and Barack were perceived by the public. “I was ‘other’ almost by default,” she wrote. Compared with previous First Ladies, “I stood at the foot of the mountain, knowing I’d need to climb my way into favor.” In the doc, she admits to being skeptical about whether the United States was ready for an African American president, and looking back, she questions those naive enough to believe that Barack Obama’s victory signaled the beginning of a new “post-racial” phase in the nation.
The movie takes time to introduce Obama’s core team, including chief of staff Melissa Winter and stylist Meredith Koop. At one point, longtime bodyguard Allen Taylor explains, “The stakes are very high in this job. It’s a no-fail mission, so you have to get it right 100% of the time.”
Michelle Obama could say the same: Every president (and FLOTUS) must deal with being criticized on a daily basis, and yet, by virtue of being the first black first family to occupy the White House, the Obamas were held to a higher standard. Barack Obama has been consistently diplomatic about this point — with “diplomatic” being the nature of the office until now — but Michelle is now free to speak somewhat more freely about the racism they both encountered.
When Barack Obama earned the Democratic Party nomination, the decision came at the expense of a former first lady, Hillary Clinton. In Gallup polls of the past two years, Michelle Obama has been named the “most admired woman” in the world. Unlike Clinton (who placed fourth, below Melania Trump), Obama expresses no desire to run for the office Barack once held. Political life was her husband’s thing, and going along with it meant reining in her own ambitions — as motherhood had before it.
This was no small sacrifice for a driven young woman from the South Side of Chicago, whose parents had pushed her to excellence (while showing a clear preference for her older brother Craig Robinson, she claims). Her achievements were a way of emerging from his shadow, although later, as First Lady, she was expected to remain in Barack’s. No more. The “Becoming” book tour represents Michelle Obama’s coming-out moment, a chance to reassert her own identity. Now Barack can be the guest star — the Jay-Z to her Beyoncé.
If the words “hope” and “progress” and “change” effectively positioned his presidential run, then “Becoming” seems a perfectly fitting label for Michelle’s own journey. The book reflects on how she became first lady; the film suggests she’s still growing as a person, empowering us to do the same.