Becoming (2020) ★★★
Director: Nadia Hallgren
Streaming on Netflix
Last year, along with ten million other people, I read Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. I picked it up expecting to get the inside story on what it’s like to live in the White House as First Lady, but Mrs. Obama doesn’t spend a lot of time on her years in Washington. Instead, she focuses on what grounds her: her family, her upbringing on the south side of Chicago, her education, and the early years of her marriage before Barack Obama was elected president. This turns out to be much more interesting and illuminating than anything she could have written about living in the White House.
One of the refreshing things about Becoming (both the memoir and documentary) is how open Michelle Obama is about the challenges she faced in her career and marriage, as well as on the campaign trail. It’s not only that she talks about her struggles, it’s that she describes what she did to address each difficulty. She gets specific about the little, day-to-day things, like how she found time to go to the gym or feed her children healthy meals. The truth, she explains, is that she often had help, and she gives a lot of credit to her mother, as well as her staff and assistants. The book had a self-help aspect that felt generous to her reader, a way of saying: look, it took a lot of work to become the person I am today, I’m not naturally this calm, cool, and collected.
Still, it’s clear that Michelle Obama has a lot more discipline and grit than most mortals.
Her mother says that as a child, little Michelle was obsessive about her piano practice, playing the same song over and over until she got it right. When her high school guidance counselor told her she wasn’t “Princeton material,” she was annoyed and hurt, but applied to Princeton anyway. She tells director Nadia Hallgren, “In hindsight, I had to go to Princeton to see what I wasn’t good enough for.” Harvard Law followed, then a job at a prestigious law firm. She was getting all her ducks in a row when Barack Obama walked into her life. She seemed to realize right away that he was going to take her in a different direction, and in the early years of their partnership, she struggled to maintain a sense of self. In her memoir, Obama goes into detail about the marriage counseling she and Barack underwent after their children were born. She expected the counselor to tell Barack to be a more attentive husband; instead, she was advised her to stand up for her needs. Through counseling, she realized that she didn’t want to be “just an appendage to his dreams.”
Becoming, the documentary, is kind of like an enhancement of the glossy photo section in the middle of Becoming, the hardcover book. Not only do you get a chance to meet many of the people that Michelle Obama writes about, and to see the places she describes, you also get to witness the rapturous reception of her memoir while she was on her book tour. Her tour was more than just book promotion: it was a way to celebrate her years as First Lady, and for the country to bask in her charm. Everyone wanted to interview her, and it’s funny to see her telling the same stories with slight variations, in one fabulous outfit after another. She could fill stadiums — and did — but she also took time to sign books in stores like any other author would so, and to visit schools and talk with young women.
The interviews that Obama gives to Hallgren throughout Becoming aren’t particularly revealing–or at least, they don’t offer any new insights that she left out of the book. But Obama seems to be having a lot of fun now that she’s out of the White House and able to let her hair down, a little. One of my favorite parts of the documentary is when we see Obama’s stylist going through a rack of outfits for touring appearances. “I see Elvis when I look at this,” the stylist says, pointing out a rhinestone embellishment on the lapel of a shiny pink blazer, “and I don’t see that as a bad thing.” In another scene, Obama dons a pair of sparkly, thigh-high boots with a shiny yellow dress. She looks like the sun, like she knows it’s her turn to shine.