Becoming, gets it title from the book that former first lady Michelle Obama wrote. The tome and the promotional tour that goes with it has an aim to reach as many people as possible, especially younger generations. Her aims at reaching those demographics doesn’t seem to be one way. The application of those aims, though, is much more difficult. Her 34 city tour involves armored vehicles and police, stopping her from having that human experience. It also stops the people she wants to reach, who presumably yearn for a time when a First Lady was a real, person instead of some non-entity. The movie is aware of this as much as she is, capturing her through those cars.
Although thankfully, this isn’t just a film about Obama going from one city to another. Other scenes have a more intimate approach. The doc gives us access through backrooms where she has meaningful conversations with people that she has more time with now. Some of those talks are with her brother Craig, who comments on the belts she wears. These moments are less of a banal filler and more of an insight through her mind. On how she uses fashion statements as weapons instead of falling victim to fashion and other patriarchal institutions. The doc also has its digressions, talking to Craig and those around her about being around one of the most admired and huggable people in the world.
Michelle Obama, then, has round table panels with young women and the film follows two women who might have the same uphill battle as she did. But the camera returns to her in scenes when she discusses the people close to her and have shaped her into the person that she is. One of those people are her father, an intelligent man who never got his chance because of his skin color. That setback made him push both his children to where they are now. This might probably be the most tragicomic part of this other puff piece on her. She discusses the way she witnessed the same meritocracy that her father experienced.
Obama witnessed this both in her college life and now. As a reminder, a less qualified man has the same job as her producer and warmongering husband did. Obama then might be part of the last generation benefiting from a real meritocracy. She can only do so much to spread the wealth that her husband’s detractors have accused him of doing, as if doing so is a crime. She discusses that meritocracy with people who interview her on stage. And the film shows how much preparation they also have to do to share the stage with her.
Again, the film’s approach and scope drives that point that her story has connections with everyone else’s. And that that story is complex. Watching this, then, can bring out emotions like exhaustion and joy, reactions like laughter and tears. She both is a descendant of slaves and is a more active part of a system that tries to fix the world’s problems. Commenting on that system feels strange in a film about a woman trying to excise herself from it.That contradiction makes her fascinating.
Obama is an anomaly yet she’s also part of a long line of people who have neuroses when it comes to running a superpower. Director Nadia Hallgren, then, is a respectful part of that slow freedom. Outside of archive photos, Obama’s husband only appears in the doc once. Obama also makes comments about the young black people who didn’t vote during the last election. She focuses on that fact instead of going deeper into why they didn’t. But at least these off the cuff comments make the film seem less of a calculated move on her part.
Catch Becoming on Netflix.