Michelle Obama waiting to go on stage in Becoming.


Dept. of Justifiable Reverence


It’s November 5, 2008. It’s the morning after. The African-American woman standing in front of me is telling me a story. It’s a Wednesday in New York. The skies have opened up, it’s grey, gloomy, and downright miserable. Just your average fall day. Only it isn’t. Something feels different. People are making eye contact as they walk down the street. They’re looking at one another, they’re smiling, they’re nodding as if in some secret acknowledgment.

Myself and about 40 other people are waiting in line. We’ve been standing for over an hour now for a copy of the New York Times. The first run of newspaper was long gone and they had to reopen the presses. I’m standing in line, in the rain, and the woman in front of me is just gushing.

She was on the road when she heard the news. She was a volunteer at a polling station in Philadelphia and was driving home to Brooklyn when the news broke over the radio. She’s been trying to get copies of the Times all morning. Having searched all of Brooklyn with no success, she decided to take the train to Manhattan in the hope of finding some here. She tells me that she needs copies for everyone, for her son, for her mother, and for her two cousins.

She tells me that she’s buying copies for the grandchildren she doesn’t yet have.

The newspapers finally arrived. The headline just read: “OBAMA”.

Later that day, in an article I was writing, I wondered if a black man in the White House was enough to save a world so horribly in the red?

Remeber this? We may never witness such grace in American politics ever again.

The America of 12 years ago feels like an aberration. Especially now. The profound optimism that seemed to pervade the country, a belief in hope and the possibility of change, is something we will likely never see again in their politics. Not ever.

Watching Becoming, I couldn’t help but think that Michelle Obama feels the same way. Forever grateful that she was part of a movement which, for one brief, shining moment, demonstrated how politics could be inspirational, but has since resigned herself to the reality that “hope and change” must come from somewhere else. Throughout their political campaign, the Obamas had this unwavering belief that government could be an instrument for good. That it could change the world.

This documentary demonstrates a significant shift in that thinking. Just observe the way she interacts with the youth. Look at everything she’s investing her time in. Listen to the words she uses when describing both her future and her legacy. It’s clear that she now believes that change – real change – can only come from individuals and communities.

Michelle Obama waiting to go on stage in Becoming.

Becoming sells itself as something of a road-trip documentary, tracking Michelle Obama’s journey across America in promotion of her autobiography of the same name.

This isn’t some sordid tell-all. Not that we ever expected it to be. After those early days on the campaign trail, when the other side decided that she too was as fair game as her husband, Michelle Obama has employed a finely honed sense of diplomacy. She’s fiery, but avoids coming across as militant. She’s critical, but presents it as disappointment instead of anger. She still speaks her mind, but she’s a lot more careful in her choice of words.

Which doesn’t mean that what she has to say isn’t incisive. Her criticisms of Trump, her despondency towards black voters, and her frustration at America, is still there. You just need to be paying close attention.

Becoming does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a portrait of an ambitious and accomplished black woman who sets aside her own dreams in support of her husband and family, and who now finds herself having to forge a new path forward. Michelle Obama’s story isn’t every woman’s story. It may have started out that way, but the reality of having experienced a world that only 44 other families have means that she can’t really say, “you too, can be like me”, but rather, “here’s how I survived it”.

Michelle Obama hugging a student in Becoming.

Becoming works best when viewed as a supplement to Michelle Obama’s book. Your enjoyment here being entirely dependent on how emotionally invested you are in her as a person.

As a film in its own right, however, I found that it falls a little short. Narratively, this is a documentary that feels like someone strung together a series of behind the scenes videos that you might find on YouTube.

There are too many moments that feel unfinished. Like when the movie inexplicably shifts its focus to two young women, but doesn’t really follow through with their stories. Or when we get brief moments of biographical information without the context of what came before or what comes after. Unless, of course, you’ve read the book.

Early in the documentary, before she sets off on her whistle-stop book tour of America, we see Michelle Obama and her team deciding on the hosts and moderators they’d want for each of her 34 events. They talk about how they want a diversity of voices. And even some difficult questions. It is unfortunate how that conversation is then undercut by the way Becoming chooses to present its narrative. In framing Michelle Obama’s story by cutting back and forth between different events, splicing together bits and pieces from different conversations, it leaves us believing that each one of those events featured a series of well crafted talking points as opposed to the open discourse we were promised.

The smartest thing that director Nadia Hallgren does in Becoming is to leave Barack Obama out of it. Knowing damn well that he sucks the oxygen out of every room he walks into (in a good way), she relegates him to a bit player in this story. He is Jay-Z to Michelle’s Beyoncé. His presence is felt. His role in her life is in no way diminished. But Hallgren works hard to make this Michelle’s story. And by doing so, she shows us why Michelle might just be more inspiring than Barack.

A behind the scenes look at Netflix's Michelle Obama documentary, Becoming.

Michelle Obama isn’t just the most famous woman in the world, she is also the most popular. What Becoming does well, is show us why.

Because the thing about Michelle Obama, the thing that makes her so appealing, is just how real she is. Despite her walls, despite that forced diplomacy, the authenticity of her character still shines through. She isn’t perfect and she doesn’t pretend to be. She struggles with being the bigger person. She works hard at her marriage. She knows that being black in America means that you’re held to a different standard. To a higher standard.

She lets us in on her strategy. In how she has to be careful in the way she presents herself to the world. From what she says to how she dresses. She acknowledges that so much of who she is and what she does is curated. But she never ever comes across has being false or dishonest.

Becoming is, in every way, hagiographic. But how could it be anything else? When you have a subject like Michelle Obama, why would you want it to be? This is a documentary for when you’ve lost faith in the world. For when you need a reminder of what that moment felt like 12 years ago. Before we were jaded. Before our current cynicism. I remember that feeling. I liked that feeling.

89 minutes
Director: Nadia Hallgren
Cast: Michelle Obama

Becoming is now streaming on Netflix.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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