Barack Obama is old news, long live Michelle. In the years following their departure from the White House both of the Obama’s have been active enough, releasing books, engaging in philanthropic work and, relevant to this production, making deals with Netflix through their own company, Higher Ground Productions. I have already been able to take in the fruits of that arrangement, through last year’s excellent documentary American Factory, an in-depth expose into the plight of the American worker at a time of growing Chinese influence. But it is fair to say that it is Michelle that has taken the primary focus on the Obama family for herself over the last little while.
This documentary appears to aim to continue that process. For me, the worthiness of it, as I think for all such documentaries, would come down to what exactly the point of the exercise was. Was it to be just a recordation of Michelle Obama’s book tour? Was it to be an in-depth profile of the woman, a biography in visual form? Or was it to be something more investigative, something that could tackle why adoring crowds still scream the name “OBAMA!” every time they see Michelle or Barack pass by? Would the film dare to try all three approaches? Or would it be something more basic, something fluffier, something altogether less interesting?
In late 2018, Michelle Obama releases Becoming, a book that serves as both a memoir and an exposition of her own ideals and hopes, and perhaps also points to her becoming more of her own person after eight years as First Lady. A tour to publicise the book takes in huge stadium crowds and more intimate round-tables, as Obama explores the state of American today, especially in relation to the status of minorities and women.
Becoming does indeed proceed from the start as a recordation of Michelle Obama’s book tour, one where her stops consist of Q&A’s hosted by a laundry list of famed interviewers, from Oprah to Colbert. Clips of the actual interviews are good for the odd joke and amusing anecdote: one where she had trouble getting her daughters to move on Inauguration Day 2017, having to revert to saying “The Trumps are coming” as a threat, is especially good. Her energy is tangible, and her charisma undeniable. But there is nothing in this section of the documentary, where it seems like a promotion for the book that remains in bestseller lists today, that one could not experience from a Youtube compilation. More intriguing are the moments when we get to go backstage and see the work behind the scenes: the prep, the nerves and the interaction with friends and family.
Those seeking undeniable honesty will probably be a bit dissapointed. Like Miss Americana earlier this year, or, perhaps more relevantly, 2014’s Mitt (hard as it is to recall, that was one of Netflix’ very first original projects), you never lose the sense that you are watching people well-used to being on camera, who are well-trained in how to retain poise, control and an aura of calm while the lens zooms in. To that extent Becoming is a bit of a puff piece, because the Michelle Obama that it showcases is just that little bit too perfect.
Becoming’s Michelle Obama is not a three-dimensional woman: she never argues with family or staff, never clashes with her husband, never expresses even the slightest fatigue with the legions of people who want to pour their hearts out to her. Her moments of weakness amount to admitting that she cried when she left the White House for the last time. It is a film where director Nadia Hallgren does not appear all that interested in digging beyond the surface level of what she sees. She previously worked as a cinematographer on a TV documentary about Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve education for women, and one must naturally wonder if she has become too close to her subject: interviews that the director has given post-release certainly give that impression.
That does not mean that Becoming is a lost cause, but it does mean that we must look beyond the central focus to find something worth seeing. The prime opportunity for that is through the film’s depiction of women in America, which are the main topic of conversation at several round-tables that Michelle Obama attends as part of her book tour. The round-tables are populated almost exclusively by women, and almost exclusively by minority women. On the one occasion when a white participant is featured, its a discussion of how her parents were perpetrators of a racially-motivated “flight” to the Chicago suburbs in respond to an increasing black presence in their original neighbor hoods (brilliantly visualised, by the difference in racial make-up of Michelle Obama’s early school classes and later).
Her book tour and these events where she tries to get more in-depth and personal with her readers are very much seeking to empower and represent the views, hopes, ideals and dreams of young black, Hispanic and other minority women. And I suppose that must be considered the documentary’s primary focus really, an effort to record the stories of these women, and how Michelle Obama is attempting to change their viewpoints. It’s a worthy goal, but if that is the main point then not enough time is spent on it.
Other than that, it is only as a biography or an expose that Becoming can find some solid ground. The film offers a fairly comprehensive but somewhat shallow, summation of Michelle Obama’s life to this point, a life dominated by a battle against low expectations. A loving and supporting family could only do so much, especially in the face of institutional racism that has a guidance counsellor in high school telling her that she should set her sights lower than the Ivy League. Even here everything is framed to paint Michelle Obama in as good a light as possible, a never-say-die crusader, who among all of her other successes found the time to marry a future President of the United States, even when right-wing news coverage tried to paint her as some kind of duplicitous danger to the White House. There isn’t a hurdle that exists that Michelle Obama could not overcome, or so it seems.
I perhaps should clarify what I mean when I talk about all of this positivity. I do not mean that I am looking for juicy details of Michelle Obama’s faults, or for “Gotcha” moments that will show her up. I am certainly not looking for a Fox News-inspired examination into, as one clip purports, the reasons why Michelle Obama hates America. But it is impossible to not think that you are viewing a well-rehearsed performance when the film is as positive as this is about its subject, the perfect daughter, sister, wife, mother and First Lady (and ex-First Lady, arguably a trickier task than the first part).
There is a scene in this documentary, right around the halfway point, when Barack Obama decides to surprise (or maybe it is a staged event) his wife while she onstage as part of her book tour. As he walks backstage, he and his detail walk by what I assume are stadium workers, who stare slack-jawed at the sight of the former President. One of them just screams “OOBAAMAAA”, exhibiting an hysteria akin to Beatlemania. Hallgreen never really is able to capture just why the Obama’s frequently get so loud and boisterous a reaction, with most of her film focusing on calmer, more emotionally meaningful interactions with the public, and part of me thinks there might have been a missed opportunity there.
Becoming simply lacks a bit of punch. Miss Americana felt a bit more honest, because Taylor Swift dedicated plenty of time to talking about her own self-disgust and unhappiness with her celebrity. Mitt felt a bit more honest because it revolved around a life-defining failure in getting elected. In comparison, Becoming feels like a PR exercise. And, take it from someone who would have happily voted for Barack Obama twice if I was an American, or would probably take Michelle Obama over a large number of other candidates in the same circumstances: this film doesn’t really tell me anything about Michelle Obama that I either didn’t know or are surprised to find out.
Hallgreen directs a fairly standard documentary given the subject matter. Massive stadiums become car rides become book signings. In the moment interviews become staged confessionals. It seems almost at pains to seem in the moment, with the sometimes jittery cinema verite camerawork or the almost uncomfortable amount that the lens is in Michelle Obama’s face. Talking head interviews of family and friends are framed as if they occurred in an off-the-cuff manner, but it’s not hard to see through it. Cold hard reality only really comes into it when Michelle Obama’s fans and well-wishers are filmed gushing with praise about her in the moment, but of course we are only seeing a cropped few that Hallgreen deigns to show to us. There simply must be a more critical side that we are not seeing, and of course it comes as little surprise that Michelle Obama had some degree of input on the cut.
Whether Michelle Obama has political aspirations remains a question that will presumably keep being asked for at least another few years, though some of her comments in this movie would point to the negative. But, regardless of anything else, if I was told that Becoming was a film released as part of a political campaign, I would not be surprised. This does not mean that Becoming a bad film, but it does mean that it is lacking a certain amount of sincerity: the entire project seems set-up to present its focus in as saint-like or as positive a manner as possible. It is PR, and lacks the beating heart or stinging expose of American Factory. Those looking for a revelation, or something in-depth, will be need to look elsewhere. For those who want their positive opinions of Michelle Obama, and the Obama’s in general, to be reinforced, then I guess this one is for you. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).