May 4, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Nadia Hallgren
Culture Representation: The Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming” follows her on tour while promoting her 2018 memoir of the same title, and the movie shows her interacting with racially and socially diverse groups of people during her tour stops in the U.S. and Canada.
Culture Clash: In the film, Obama addresses the hate and criticism that she and husband Barack Obama have received from critics and conservative political opponents, especially when he was president of the United States.
Culture Audience: Aside from fans of the Obamas (the most obvious audience), “Becoming” will appeal primarily to people who are curious to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like for a former first lady to headline a successful arena tour, which had never before been achieved by a first lady of the United States.
The good news for Michelle Obama fans is that the documentary “Becoming” is everything people would expect of a movie that takes a behind-the-scenes of her massively successful “Becoming” memoir book tour, which included sold-out arena shows in North America and Europe in 2018 and 2019. The bad news for Michelle Obama fans who want her to run for political office someday is that she makes it very clear in the documentary’s candid interviews that she’s not interested in subjecting herself to the cutthroat business of being a politician. And she definitely doesn’t miss the unrelenting scrutiny and criticism that she and her family got when her husband, Barack Obama, was president of the United States from 2009 to 2017.
As for people who aren’t Michelle Obama fans (who probably won’t watch this movie anyway), the “Becoming” documentary won’t do much to change their minds, since it shows her in a very positive and sympathetic light in her outreach to the public and how she embodies the same progressive ideals that she had when she was first lady of the United States. Because the movie is about a book tour, which basically shows Michelle Obama interacting with numerous adoring fans, the documentary is told very much from a “bubble” perspective. Michelle Obama is not seen having to directly deal with anyone who is critical of her and her husband. (And there are are lot of people who are definitely not fans of the couple.)
However, the movie does include montages of TV footage and Internet comments from Obama critics to show the high level of animosity toward the Obamas. And what people can see from the film (and in Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir “Becoming”) is that she’s not afraid to show her vulnerable side by admitting that a lot of the insults and violent threats from Obama haters have done some damage.
In the documentary, she comments on the hate and backlash that she’s received from people who want to see the downfall of the Obamas: “The one thing I can share is that is does hurt. Because if we walk around like it doesn’t, the perpetrator can just say, ‘I was joking. It’s just politics.’ No, no. That [hatred] changes the shape of a person’s soul.”
“Becoming” is the feature-film directorial debut of Nadia Hellgren, who previously helmed short films such as Netflix’s “After Maria” (a documentary about Hurricane Maria survivors in Puerto Rico), as well as the digital docuseries “She’s the Ticket,” about American women running for political office. Hellgren does a very capable job of balancing tour footage and archival footage in “Becoming,” and the filmmakers are clearly fans of the Obamas. The movie hits some very familiar beats that are often seen in tour documentaries. There’s a “feel-good home movie” approach to the documentary, as opposed to a “journalistic exposé” approach. Some people will have a problem with that, while others won’t.
“Becoming” is the third Netflix project to be released from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, which also backed the Netflix documentaries “American Factory” (which won several awards, including an Oscar) and “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” Since Barack Obama left office, he and Michelle Obama have inked deals with Penguin Random House (for a reported $65 million) and Netflix, which didn’t disclose the financial terms of its deal with the Obamas, but a low-end estimate is that it’s at least $100 million. Award-winning comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle and TV producers Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rimes have each inked Netflix deals in the $100 million to $300 million range, so presumably the Obamas have also garnered a Netflix deal in that range.
The fact that the Obamas’ wealth has significantly increased since Barack left office is not mentioned at all in the movie. Also not mentioned in the film are the superstar-level ticket prices charged for Michelle Obama’s arena tour. However, it’s easy to see why the “Becoming” filmmakers chose to omit that information from the film, because if they included it, there would be inevitable criticism that it would make Michelle Obama look greedy or boastful about her wealth.
In fact, the documentary goes out its way to show that Michelle Obama wants to still be perceived as someone who hasn’t lost touch with her working-class roots—she grew up on the South Side of Chicago, which she frequently mentions in the movie—and that she still identifies with the “common people,” even though she’s very aware that her life has become far from common. There are several scenes of her going to places outside of her massive arena shows to lead small group discussions with people from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, such as teenage students, members of book clubs and African American churchgoers. In these settings, she hugs many people and gives advice that’s meant to uplift people’s spirits and boost their confidence.
Although these groups are often racially diverse, “Becoming” places an emphasis on Michelle Obama connecting with women and people of color in these groups. During one of these group discussions, when Michelle Obama is asked by an African American teenage girl how to handle being treated as invisible, Michelle replies: “I never felt invisible. It’s because my parents always made be feel visible.”
She continues, “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen. We’re far from it. Time will not allow it. It’s not going to happen with one president, with one vote, so you’ve got to find the tools within yourself to be visible and to be heard and to use your voice.”
The documentary even goes as far as showing footage of two of the teenage students—Elizabeth Cervantes and Shayla Allen—who met Michelle Obama in these discussion groups, to see what these students are like in their everyday lives. When Cervantes met Michelle Obama in the discussion group, Cervantes was a senior at Whitney M. Young Magnet School in Chicago, where Michelle went during the book tour.
The movie shows Cervantes questioning why she was one of the small number of people chosen for the group discussion with Michelle Obama, since Cervantes said that she wasn’t an academically outstanding student. However, when Cervantes said that in addition to going to school, she works to help give financial help to her father and younger brothers, Michelle pointed out that Cervantes’ family devotion and hard work made her special and shouldn’t be considered less important than academic achievements.
In another part of the documentary, Michelle Obama says in a group discussion: “I tell people we focus too much on stats and not on story. Stats are ‘What college are you from?’ Story is ‘What was your grandfather like? Who was your favorite relative and why?'”
Because people in the U.S. have divided opinions about the Obamas, this type of public interaction can be seen as either very inspirational or very phony. The fans would say that it shows Michelle Obama as down-to-earth and caring deeply about connecting with people who aren’t as privileged as she is. The critics would say it’s just a calculated façade that’s part of the publicity campaign to sell her book. These smaller gatherings are some of the reasons people will want to see the “Becoming” documentary, because it’s a behind-the-scenes look that wasn’t widely shown in the media coverage of the tour.
As for the on-stage footage, there’s plenty of that too, but it’s less revealing, because so much of it has already been covered by the media and is available on audience-filmed videos that have been posted on the Internet. For whatever reason (which isn’t explained in the movie), “Becoming” only has behind-the-scenes footage of the tour in the U.S. and Canada, not in Europe.
The documentary has the expected charming soundbites and anecdotes (many of them very amusing) of Michelle Obama being interviewed on stage by various celebrities. Each show of the tour had a different celebrity moderator. The moderators included Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Valerie Jarrett, Conan O’Brien, Tracee Ellis Ross and Phoebe Robinson.
People who’ve already read the “Becoming” memoir won’t be surprised by what’s said on stage. For example, Michelle Obama repeats the story about how a guidance counselor at her high school discouraged her from applying to Princeton University, because the counselor told her that she didn’t have what it took to be a Princeton student. Michelle not only graduated from Princeton, but she also got her law degree from Harvard University. On stage, Michelle says about that the counselor’s negativity: “I’m still salty about that,” but she uses it as an example of how people shouldn’t let their identities and dreams be defined by haters or people who don’t want others to succeed.
And the backstage footage is also what people would expect, as Michelle Obama greets star-struck and worshipful fans (mostly female, many of them tearful) during book signings and photo ops. “Becoming” is probably the only documentary where people can see Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey backstage in a prayer circle before going on stage at an arena show. There are some sections of the documentary where Michelle Obama reads excerpts of her “Becoming” memoir, but most of her candid comments in the movie are from new interviews that she did specifically for the film.
Michelle Obama says of her meet-and-greets: “It’s an emotional, sociological dance with people … When somebody walks up to me, [I] don’t look around, look beyond them. Look them in the eye. Take in their story. This is how I relate to people. It helps me stay connected.”
Barack Obama makes a brief appearance in the documentary, as he’s seen backstage at the show in Washington, D.C., and appearing on stage to surprise Michelle with a bouquet of flowers. Barack and Michelle’s daughters Malia and Sasha are also briefly in the documentary. There’s footage of a tearful Malia hugging Michelle backstage after a show and saying, “Those eight years [in the White House] weren’t for nothing. People are here because people believe in love and hope and other people.”
The Michelle Obama family members who get the most screen time are her older brother Craig Robinson (who’s a sports executive) and her mother Marian Shields Robinson. Craig, who says that he will always be his mother’s favorite child, admits that he younger sister’s fame has caused some insecurities for him: “No brother should have to deal with their sister being the most popular person in the world.” (Michelle Obama being “the most popular person in the world” is certainly debatable, considering there are celebrities who are beloved by people of all political affiliations, whereas it’s not a secret that a lot of people dislike the Michelle and Barack Obama because of the couple’s liberal politics.)
The documentary includes scenes of Michelle visiting Craig and his family at Craig’s home, as well as Michelle and her mother Marian going back to Michelle’s former childhood home in Chicago, where she and Barack lived in the first year of their marriage. (The house’s current owners aren’t in the movie.)
Michelle Obama also shares fond and bittersweet memories of her father, Fraser C. Robinson III, who died from multiple sclerosis in 1991: “The pain of losing him is an emptiness that I still haven’t gotten over … He just made people feel loved.”
The former first lady makes it clear that she was never ashamed of being raised in a working-class home. Her father was a pump work at a water plant, while Michelle’s mother worked as a secretary for various organizations, including the University of Chicago and mail-order company Spiegel. Michelle Obama also mentions that because of racism, her father was frequently underappreciated and passed over for promotions at his job, while less intelligent and less qualified white co-workers were rewarded.
Also interviewed are some of Michelle Obama’s longtime employees including chief of staff Melissa Winters and stylist Meredith Koop. Winters remembers that the first year of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was “exhausting” and “not glamorous.” Koop says that when it comes to Michelle Obama’s personal style, “She’s not a minimalist.”
Michelle Obama jokes with Winters: “Do you know that Melissa loves Barry Manilow? I don’t know why we’re friends. We couldn’t be more opposite.” The beginning of the movie shows Michelle getting in a SUV and listening to hip-hop on her phone. And in case you ever wanted to know what kinds of birthday gifts that Michelle Obama gets from her employees, the documentary has some footage of her backstage on her birthday getting “Happy Birthday” sung to her by her employees and getting a selfie stick as a gift.
Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” memoir revealed many of her experiences and feelings about being first lady of the United States. She does the same in the documentary, where she remembers getting harsh lessons in media scrutiny and public backlash during her husband’s first presidential campaign. “I stopped talking off-the-cuff,” she says. “I stopped talking freely. I used teleprompters. I had to be much more scripted than I had been before.”
She also describes how her life changed after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008: “One day, you’re a normal family, and election happens, and your life changes instantly. It’s like we were shot out of a cannon. We didn’t have time to adjust to it.”
And in somewhat of a rarity, a current U.S. Secret Service agent is interviewed in the documentary. Allen Taylor, who has worked with Michelle Obama since 2008, is “more like a brother” than a government employee, says Michelle. Taylor comments on his job of protecting Michelle Obama: “Stakes are high in this job. It’s a no-fault mission. You have to get it right 100% of the time.”
As for Michelle Obama’s reflections on being first lady of the United States, it’s obvious that she has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she seems proud of the impact that Barack Obama’s presidency had on the entire world, as well as the historical significance of the Obamas being the first African American presidential family of the United States. On the other hand, she clearly does not want herself and her family to continue to go through the viciousness, dangerous hate and intense pressure that come with being family members of a very famous politician who’s in office.
In the documentary, she talks about how on the day that she and Barack left the White House after he left office, she didn’t break down and cry until she was away from the prying eyes of the media and the public: “When I got on the plane, I sobbed for about 30 minutes. I think it was the release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.”
And although Michelle Obama is grateful for all the support that she and her husband received that helped him become a two-term U.S. president, she also expresses disappointment that the same support wasn’t shown in the 2016 presidential election for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was endorsed by Barack and Michelle Obama.
“I understand why people voted for [Donald] Trump,” Michelle Obama says in the documentary. “The people who didn’t vote at all—the young people, the women—that’s when you think, ‘Man, people think this is a game. After all that, they didn’t bother to vote at all.’ That’s my trauma.” And she doesn’t mince words in her disappointment with black U.S. citizens who didn’t bother to vote in the 2016 presidential election: “A lot of our folks didn’t vote. It was almost like a slap in the face.”
She also believes that Barack Obama being the first African American president of the United States unleashed a lot of pent-up racism that has further divided America: “When Barack Obama was first elected, various commentators naively declared that our country was entering a post-racial era and that skin color would no longer matter. Many were overlooking the racism and tribalism that was tearing our nation apart.” She adds that because of her and her husband’s skin color, “Barack and I were living with the awareness that we ourselves were a provocation.”
So what does Michelle Obama want to do next? This documentary shows that it’s a question that she’s still trying to answer, as she detoxes into a less-stressful life and forges ahead with her own identity that is frequently overshadowed by her very famous husband. As she says in the film, “The idea of doing the tour was to be able to reflect, to figure out, ‘What just happened to me?’ This is totally me, unplugged, for the first time in a long time.” And as she says later in the movie, “There is another chapter waiting for me out there.”
Netflix will premiere “Becoming” on May 6, 2020.