Becoming the First Lady of Documentary

Netflix doc offers an inspiring portrait of Michelle Obama

8 mins read

(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Nadia Hallgren

Is it time to crown Michelle Obama the First Lady of Documentary? After lending her mojo as executive producer to great docs like Crip Camp and last year’s Oscar winner American Factory, the former First Lady proves herself a spectacular subject with Becoming. A superhero hasn’t revealed herself so refreshingly and candidly since Ruth Bader Ginsburg disrobed for RBG.

Obama is a terrifically engaging subject who enjoys a magnetic rapport with the camera and everyone with whom she shares the screen. Rather than offering mere self-serving hagiography through this doc produced by Netflix and Higher Ground Productions, Michelle and Barack Obama’s new documentary venture, Becoming is a necessary essay on inclusion and belonging. It’s an inspiring tale that evokes the hope for change the Obamas embodied while in the White House.

Audiences desperately need this message right now and the film is perfectly timed for an election year. Becoming follows Michelle Obama as she undertakes her book tour while launching her memoir of the same name. Director Nadia Hallgren enjoys a wealth of access to Obama on tour and outside the circuit. Featuring a robust array of coverage, this handsomely produced film bounces with energy and urgency. It’s an invigorating portrait, as stimulating intellectually as it is emotionally, as the intimate profile blends the personal and the political throughout. Becoming unabashedly dons some rose-coloured glasses while revisiting the former White House occupants. it’s not going to convert Trump supporters, but it should remind about viewers about America’s capacity for greatness.

The Becoming tour has the energy of a rock concert. Stops on the tour feature energetic conversations between Obama and guest moderators like Gayle King and Stephen Colbert. Obama is a superstar celebrity who packs one arena after another. She has the energy of Oprah and the sharp wit of RBG. They’re perfect ingredients for a captivating profile. Becoming showcases Obama’s oratory skills that energised crowds on the campaign trail and she doesn’t miss a beat while using her reflections of her time in the White House to instil within her audience a desire to keep the country moving forward.

Becoming lifts conventions of concert tour documentaries with snippets of the frenzy behind the scenes revealing the massive undertaking required for such an event. Similarly, these moments are revitalising and humanising as one sees the former First Lady cool, candid, and at ease with friends and family. Her mother Marian and brother Craig Robinson receive a fair share of the spotlight as Becoming looks at Obama’s upbringing as she proudly credits her parents and Chicago roots for inspiring her throughout her journey. Hallgren’s comfortable fly-on-the-wall approach captures tender moments between the family members, like petty sibling rivalry after Obama reveals that her mom prefers Craig’s wine to the swill Michelle served in the White House. These fun, upbeat, and unexpected moments illustrate why the Obamas have a popular appeal. They aren’t afraid to let people see them as humans.

The relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama obviously receives a generous chapter in the film as the former First Lady recounts their courtship to audiences. Hallgren injects the anecdotes with a range of archival footage offering a window into the couple’s blossoming relationship. Obama speaks of seeing her husband’s potential and shaping her goals to support him. It’s a carefully construed fable about forging her own path to inspire change through the opportunities presented by being at his side.

The former President doesn’t speak to the camera in the same candid direct-address interviews that Hallgren enjoys with Mrs. Obama, but a highlight of Becoming is a verité sequence in which he crashes the book tour. The film evokes the energy of A Star Is Born as security personnel whiz the former President through the arena corridors and onto the stage. The Obamas rouse the audience with a she said/he said account of their relationship, again demonstrating the warmth and relatable aspects of humanity one simply doesn’t see in the current President and First Lady.

The tour is really just a premise for Hallgren’s energetic portrait of the former First Lady’s career after leaving the White House. As Obama shares her life’s story, the values that shaped her, and the mission she hopes to carry outside the White House, one feels the spark of tangible awe that enraptures her audience. The scenes outside the arenas, however, are the heart and power of the film. Obama tours schools and reading groups in between shows at the arenas. She sits down with young Americans and listens to their fears, anxieties, and dreams. Drawing upon her own experience as a Black woman who overcame adversity to be the first Fist Lady in a nation with a deeply racist history, she inspires them to be bold, brave, and confident while pursuing their dreams. “I am the former First Lady of the United States,” Obama says in the film. “I am also the descendent of slaves.”

Hallgren ensures that Becoming reflects a diversity of young American experiences as Obama draws upon the racism she and the former President encountered throughout their careers. She is refreshingly candid while talking about racism in America and speaks plainly that the rise of Trump was almost inevitable as white supremacy’s last stand after seeing a Black couple in the White House. Obama is remarkable at getting everyday people to think and speak openly about the present situation, but also in emphasizing the sense of failure she experienced when many women and Black voters didn’t show up and vote in the previous election in the same numbers they did for Barack Obama. She asks each person she encounters to push for a better America.

There’s a lot at stake in the meaty 89 minutes of Becoming. Obama instils a shot of positive energy into each person she encounters in the doc and it’s impossible to watch the film without being similarly energised. It’s really something that Hallgren recaptures the optimism of the early Obama years, which seem like a distant memory in the dark days of Trump.

Becoming is now on Netflix.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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