There seem to be two goals of Netflix’s new Michelle Obama documentary—first, to humanize (or normalize) the former First Lady of the United States as she embarks on a countrywide book tour (for her bestseller of the same name), and second, to reinforce the idea that Michelle Obama is a woman necessarily and eternally concerned with race and racism in America, particularly for Black women. The first goal is achieved, almost as much as it can be, and the personal stories and appearance of family members like her mother and brother are the strongest part of the Becoming experience. The second goal is a little more complicated, largely due to the fact that Michelle Obama occupies a strange space as a figure who is neither a politician, nor an activist—but who often presents like one or the other.
Nadia Hallgren’s film is an attempt at a portrait of a lady seemingly on fire, now that she’s “free at last.” In an early scene, Obama and billionaire Oprah Winfrey laugh as they candidly discuss the relief that came with the end of her time in the White House. Becoming is about the “liberation” of Michelle Obama, and it takes care to remind us of all that she endured on the road to the White House. As it does this , we might hope (as we hope with all documentaries that promise us intimacy with our favorites) that the veil will be lifted. And in this, Becoming isn’t entirely disappointing. We meet Obama’s brother, Craig, and her mother, Marian, and are invited into the family jokes and secrets—like how Marian always favored Craig, and Michelle’s playful resentment of that fact. We return to her childhood home where she talks with her family about her deceased father. It’s here that Becoming might have given us more. Michelle Obama as a daughter still mourning or grieving her father is hinted at, but as you listen to her speak with her mother, there’s still this disconnect where the former First Lady appears to say only what she’s meant to say—that her father inspired her, pushed her to do her best, that he is missed dearly. But anyone who knows how grief works knows that it’s all far more intense and complicated than that. I myself would have felt closer to her, if she’d have allowed for some real intimacy in these moments.
Obama is, however, willing to reveal some interesting bits about her early days as a mother, and these are the most normalizing moments in her story. Beautiful throwback photos are used throughout the documentary to tell parts of her story, but there’s one especially powerful image used, as Obama talks openly about resenting her husband after they had children. They were both lawyers, with two small children, living in Chicago, and their lives had become overwhelming. As we look at the photo—a slightly weary mother tends to one of the children while her husband sits nearby, engrossed in his newspaper—Obama tells us “something had to give. And it’s shocking to hear her say, what it was precisely, they decided to give up: “my aspirations and dreams.” She was overwhelmed with all her new responsibilities, and even admits to not being ready for children. It’s unfortunate how many women will identify with putting dreams on hold for the sake of babies, and even though the very notion of quitting a career to stay home with children is a concept only America’s most privileged women can directly identify with, the disappointment Obama speaks to feels almost universal.
Does Becoming suggest that Michelle Obama is just like the rest of us? Thankfully, no. But Hallgren’s film does remind us that Obama, while living in a mansion, was the constant victim of misogynoir from a racist American public and media. She suffered in a beautiful home that was, at times, more like a prison. Becoming tells us this is true, and the history of America and the intersections of race and class tell us this is true, as well. Regardless of status, regardless of the rooms she was in and the tables at which she sat—Michelle Obama was not protected.
But, according to Becoming, this was not the most devastating part of her time as the first black First Lady.
“I am the former First Lady of the United States, and the descendant of slaves,” Obama exclaims at one point. It’s one of those statements that can’t possibly be for Black people’s ears because we know this. Nobody knows this fact like Black people know this fact. And no one rallied around the Obamas like Black people rallied around the Obamas. For this reason, the most uncomfortable part of the film is when Michelle Obama wags her finger at Black Americans who didn’t vote, calling their choice (which assumes it was a choice) “a slap in the face.” She goes on to say that she can understand the Trump supporters. But the Black Americans who didn’t vote (no talk of voter suppression, or of felons, stripped of their rights), those she says are the source of her real “trauma.”
So much of the film is a celebration of Michelle Obama as a mentor to black women; it’s shocking that they’d include this moment, where she reinforces that ancient myth that Black people (“our people,” as she calls them) are just lazy non-voters who don’t really want change. It’s a painful reminder that it was her husband who went on TV and referred to Black protestors literally fighting for their lives as “thugs.” It’s an unnecessary reminder (unnecessary for the purposes of this film) that the unquestioning reverence many Black people feel for the Obamas is not necessarily reciprocated.
Obama’s words are perhaps more upsetting because she spends so much of the documentary acknowledging the racism that constantly reared its head throughout her life. Like so many other prominent Black figures, the former First Lady acknowledges race and racism just enough. She tells Gayle King and a massive crowd of mostly women that when Barack was late to their first date she thought he was “another triflin’ black man.” I found myself smiling when I heard her use the word “salty,” and like many other viewers surely did, I teared up watching her husband sing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for the Charleston Nine. But in these times, and after pointing the finger at Black America like she did, some of this pro-blackness just feels ultimately hollow.
That hollowness is sometimes echoed in some of Obama’s celebrity interviews (on her press tour, she sits down with the likes of Oprah, Stephen Colbert, Gayle King and Reese Witherspoon), but something far more interesting happens when Obama is working as a mentor. In several scenes, she sits down with small groups—groups of Black women, young female students, Native American students in Arizona, and older black women in the church. In one especially compelling scene, we go home with Shayla, a teen in one of the groups, and we get to know the women who are inspired by Obama’s story of becoming. Watching a young black girl, giddy as she imitates the former First Lady’s walk down a hall, we get the sense that the mere experience of being in the same space as Obama will change some of these girls forever. They light up the screen in this documentary; they are the true stars, and they bring the real magic to this story.
In this way Becoming moves deftly, thankfully, out of the space of “vanity project” and into the future, where empowered black girls and women on their own path to becoming, won’t just aspire to the White House, but will dare to think above and beyond the notions of success that Becoming can’t help but privilege. Who and what Becoming will inspire is infinitely more thrilling than Obama’s newfound freedom; who and what Michelle Obama will come to symbolize in the years to come, as her own symbolism continues to evolve, is also more interesting. So perhaps Becoming is just the beginning of this story, just a small slice of an American history that never is quite what it seems—not unlike the Former First Lady herself.
Director: Nadia Hallgren
Starring: Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey
Release Date: May 6, 2020 (Netflix)
Shannon M. Houston is a TV writer on Little Fires Everywhere and Lovecraft Country. She is the former TV editor for Paste Magazine, and probably has more babies than you. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.