Higher Ground, a production company created by Barack and Michelle Obama has scored big with their Netflix documentaries “Crip Camp” and the Oscar-winner “American Factory”. Their newest Netflix produced documentary “Becoming” is a flattering portrait of the former First Lady as we follow her on her 2019 book tour. We are treated to a first hand account of her backstory through wonderful archival footage, old photos, Michelle’s on-camera reminiscences, celebrity interviewers and friends. Selling out massive arena venues, Michelle is treated as if The Beatles were performing. Michelle tells great stories as she admits that she’s struggled to find who she is and in candid accounts we hear her urge others to fearlessly do the same. “Becoming” isn’t trying to court any controversy, it wants to inspire young female supporters with the philosophy that “your story is your power”. For every uplifting moment, she has sobering moments too. But Michelle’s journey is a lovely one to watch and one to become inspired by.
In 2009 Barack Obama, had been elected as the 44th president of the United States to become the first African American to be elected. Along with the support of his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama they continued Barack’s presidential run until 2017. The Obamas were “America’s Sweethearts” and they have a connection not just to each other but billions of people around the world.
People adored them not just as individuals but as the power couple. The world were so invested in the Obamas and their enduring relationship together that in 2016, a theatrically released film “Southside With You” was released. The film chronicles an afternoon in the summer of 1989, when Barack and Michelle went on a first date across Chicago’s South Side. It’s such a great film and I’ve seen it so many times and has become a movie I that I absolutely adore.
While “Southside With You” was their story, the new Netflix documentary “Becoming” is her story. It’s also the latest film from Higher Ground, a production company the Obamas formed in 2018 with the aim of creating documentary content for Netflix. It’s already done well with the documentary “Crip Camp” and the Oscar-winner “American Factory”, and it recently announced a move into dramatic fare with a science-fiction fantasy “Exit West”, and a series called “Bloom”, about the lives of people of colour in the fashion industry in New York City after the Second World War.
“Becoming” is named after Michelle’s 2019 book of the same name, as we follow Michelle through her book tour titled, yep you guessed it…”Becoming”. It’s an immensely flattering portrait of the former First Lady, but how can it not be when she is one of the most admirable, impressive, decent and generous role models of her generation.
“Becoming” is a full-length documentary directed by Nadia Hallgren. As we follow along with her on the book tour and revisit her backstory through wonderful archival footage, old photos, Michelle’s on-camera reminiscences and filled with celebrity interviewers and friends of Michelle; such as Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Gayle King, Stephen Colbert and Robin Roberts joining Obama onstage.
Imagine if The Beatles were still touring today and seeing them sell out massive arena venues. That’s how Michelle rolls out a book tour, she is a one person Beatle mania. It’s a lovely thing to watch Michelle interacting with underprivileged and under-served young people, a task she clearly enjoys and a cause for which she cares deeply. We hear her before a book signing explaining the importance of eye contact, listening and empathy with her fans and people in general. When each event begins, it’s pretty clear that it all comes naturally to her.
Michelle meets with young women just starting out on their journeys, who are moved to shaking and tears when meeting her, and she displays such grace and kindness with them. Then there’s the cameo by her husband, who is introduced by Valerie Jarrett and walks onstage with a bouquet of flowers and says, “This is like when Jay-Z comes out during the Beyonce concert,” and he even does a Dad-level rap as Michelle says embarrassingly, “Oh, good Lord”.
There is a great story Michelle tells when Oprah asks Michelle how she felt when the Obamas left the White House after eight years? Winfrey asked: “When you got on the helicopter, did you think, Free at last, free at last…?” Michelle replies with an anecdote about the last night the family spent in the White House, when daughters Sasha and Malia had one last sleepover with friends. In the morning, the girls were still sleeping when Michelle had to rouse them up, saying, “Wake up, the Trumps are coming!”.
Michelle reveals that she loosened the dress code of the mostly black and Latino serving staff, since she didn’t want her two daughters to get used to the idea of black men waiting on them while wearing tuxedoes. And she pleaded with the staff to let the girls make their own beds and clean up their own rooms. The movie takes some time to introduce Obama’s core team, including chief of staff Melissa Winter and her stylist Meredith Koop. In one scene, longtime secret service agent Allen Taylor explains, “The stakes are very high in this job. It’s a no-fail mission, so you have to get it right 100% of the time”.
Unfortunately for every uplifting moment, “Becoming” has sobering moments too. As Michelle shares moments of struggle that she sobbed upon leaving the White House, as she says: “There was a release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly. And as first lady, having every gesture you make, every blink of an eye, being analyzed. Your life isn’t yours anymore”.
Before Barack Obama was elected, Michelle accompanied him on the campaign trail, giving candid speeches. Her words were scrutinized so closely by the media that Michelle stopped speaking off the cuff. And yet, this lawyer, writer and wife clearly has strong opinions, revealing herself to be more outspoken now than she was during her husband’s eight years in office, when they were bombarded with conspiracy theories, lies and bigotry.
“I was just waking up to the truth of who we can be, so ready to assume the worst in people,” she explains. Barack’s successor, Donald Trump, has developed his own strategy for dealing with the press calling them “fake” and speaking to them not like a President but as someone who doesn’t respect his fellow man. Of course, Michelle Obama had a different philosophy: “When they go low, we go high”. It was a mantra that was not only classy but necessary.
In quieter, offstage moments, Michelle gets together with her mother and her brother, and shares memories as she flips through photo albums. She notes how in kindergarten, the class photo reflected the racial diversity of her neighborhood, while the eighth-grade class was all black kids. At Princeton, Michelle was one of just a handful of minority students. “One of my roommates moved out because her mother was horrified I was black,” she says. “She felt her daughter was in danger”.
“Becoming” is most inspirational in the moments, when we see Michelle’s willingness to admit that she’s struggled to find who she is, and in turn, when we hear her urge others toward fearlessly doing the same. The film isn’t trying to court any controversy. Similar to her book, it wants to inspire young female supporters with the philosophy that “your story is your power”.
It was a real shame to see Barack and Michelle move out of the White House, and have those uncultured morons move in. But all good things must come to an end and even though she is no longer the First Lady, the film shows us that she’s still growing as a person and empowering us to do the same. On the last stop of the 34-city tour, Michelle closes with words to live by: “This country is good, people are good, people are decent. I remain hopeful people want better, if not for themselves, then for the nation”.
Hallgren weaves the documentary together with a compelling narrative of public and private interviews that builds chronologically to her present. We see Michelle reach clarity, about who she wants to be; a citizen with an eye towards the youth. It might not be the person she imagined she’d be, but it’s the person she ended up becoming. Her journey is a lovely one to watch and one to become inspired by.
GRADE: ★★★★★ (5/5) – STREAM IT!
•Now available to stream on Netflix.