If, like I did, you have some reservations about watching Becoming for fear it’ll make you despondent as you recall the intelligence, grace, humility, dignity and style that Michelle Obama once brought to the White House, fear not. In fact it unexpectedly had the opposite effect, leaving me feeling inspired, hopeful and with a renewed sense of possibility for progress. Not only is this release well timed ahead of the upcoming general election as a gentle but persuasive urge to vote, Becoming is also a welcome uplifting watch, reminding us of the power of coming together, while we’re forced to be apart.
We meet Mrs Obama two years after leaving the White House, still processing those eight years in the spotlight, and figuring out what she is now becoming. Part “concert movie”, Michelle Obama: Truth or Dare/In Bed With Michelle Obama if you will, Becoming gives us a backstage pass to her 34-city tour to promote her memoir. As well as a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at her life on the road, there are highlights of her on-stage conversations; “nobody’s twerking” she jokes with an arena filled to the rafters at one event, “we are reading y’all.” But across the country there is the kind of electric atmosphere you’d expect to find at a pop concert, rather than a book tour. As her daughter Malia points out, these are mass gatherings of love and hope, that show the lasting legacy of the Obamas’ time as the first family. Michelle’s quick sense of humour also makes these events part stand-up gig; I laughed far more frequently at Mrs Obama’s remarks than I do at most studio comedies.
There is some shade with the light. Michelle discusses the racism stirred by her husband’s election, the very presence of a black first family, she points out was a “provocation” to some, while others naively assumed that the election result meant we were living in a post-racial USA. She also speaks of the “trauma” she felt at people not going out to vote during the two terms.
Inevitably, Michelle talks about her relationship with her husband; from first falling for that “Barak Obama voice” at Harvard when “the heat was coming out of the phone”, to later seeking marriage counselling together. The focus of the film though remains squarely on Michelle, with Barak only mentioned as he relates to her experience. For instance, the intense media scrutiny she was under in the lead up to the 2008 election, including Fox News speculating whether a first bump between the couple on the campaign trail was a “terrorist fist jab”. This is the third film made by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company as part of their deal with Netflix, and as such, Becoming is partly a “when they go low, we go high” retort to all the years of media distortion of the woman.
Now an “empty nester”, Michelle says she is focused on empowering and inspiring the next generation, and it’s a beautiful thing to see her spending time with young people in small groups as part of the tour and witnessing the impact of her interactions is enough to make you think that just a few minutes spent in her company could be life changing. While promoting her memoir, she is keen to instil in others the sense that we all have a valuable story to tell. At book signings, where the encounters are brief, she talks about making a concerted effort to “look them in the eye” and “take in the story”. Who knew watching footage of a book signing could be so moving. It’s also touching to see her interact with her mother and brother, those recognisable family dynamics like her brother questioning her about her outfit just before she’s about to go onstage, humanising the icon, and making her relatable. Away from the entourage, with just her mother, Michelle returns to the home she lived in as a teenager, where she looks out of a window and spots the tree where she had her first kiss. She also plays a burst of the Linus and Lucy theme from Peanuts on the piano. Relaxed, intimate moments caught on camera by filmmaker Nadia Hallgren. Another touching and memorable scene sees a radiant Mrs Obama in church receiving some advice from older women as they share what it meant to them to witness the 2009 inauguration.
Among the inner circle figures we’re introduced to are her Barry Manilow-loving long-term advisor and now Chief of Staff Melissa Winter, and Mrs Obama’s stylist Meredith Koop. Koop talks insightfully about the White House years as “costume design”, dressing her for the role of First Lady. Now with more freedom, Koop can bring some glitz to the area tour, describing one item on the rack as having a touch of Elvis about it. And not many people could stand out when it comes to footwear sitting opposite style icon Sarah Jessica Parker, but when she interviewed Michelle in Brooklyn, Obama set the Internet aflame with those thigh-high glittery gold stiletto heeled Balenciaga boots, and it’s fun to see the backstage reaction to them.
As you might have gathered, I could have watched an entire Becoming TV series, but it’s to director Nadia Hallgren’s credit she manages to pack so much into a relatively short running time, without it ever feeling rushed or incomplete. For LGBTQ viewers a highlight is Michelle recalling the day that marriage equality became the law of the land, seeing those images of the White House in rainbow colours, and her talking about trying to get outside to take in the celebrations that night. With our rights currently under attack, it’s a heartening reminder of the progress that was made in moving the country forward, and a glimpse of what could be again. Be sure to keep those end credits rolling to watch the audience members saying what they are ‘becoming’ in their own lives, including a non-binary person whom Michelle is clearly touched to hear speak.
By James Kleinmann
Becoming launches globally on Netflix Wednesday May 6th 2020.