Director: Nadia Hallgren
Producer: Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Ironically, Becoming, is primarily a story of a person who has become; the ing-ness of the journey is the least exciting part of it. The documentary, following Michelle Obama as she tours America with her namesake book, sputters to life only when she enters auditoriums and the audience bulges in sighs and shrieks, or when she’s signing books and people palpitate their affections or weep their hope in front of her. (She calls it an “emotional sociological dance”) Not as much when we talk about her past, her journey from a working class neighborhood in South Chicago, to Princeton where she was one of the few black faces on campus, to Harvard and beyond. These are footnotes in the euphoria of the present day myth of Michelle Obama. That is perhaps because we know of her history, her struggles, and her triumphs. Rehashing them in detail is not necessary.
And therein lies the ‘issue’ with Becoming. It is by design not meant to move the needle. If you have bought into the myth of the Obamas this will make you yearn for the good eight years when they were steering the ship. If you have been aggressively against them, this documentary won’t give you more ammunition, apart from the eyerolls everytime she talks about the soul and hope. Therefore, it’s a rather bland attempt at captioning the beauty of a life dedicated to hope.
I have loved Michelle Obama, even through her questionable statements, fashion and otherwise. Watching her at the Democratic National Convention telling people to go high when others go low reduced me to a pound of gooseflesh. But years changed, regimes mounted, a virus exposed the excessively rabid human condition of class and caste and race. Hope is now a distraction, not an attainable state of mind. Which is why this documentary only works within the confines of its run-time. Even then, it feels outdated, like a 2016 message in a 2020 wormhole.
The documentary shows her participating in youth and church groups, listening to them, holding their hands, urging them to be stories, not statistics. Her husband, the charming Barack Obama makes a quiet appearance; his run time in this 90 minute documentary is minimal, as are those of her daughters, Malia and Sasha. Instead, to get to know her better, we have conversations with her chief of staff, her bodyguard, shots of her birthday cake being cut, and of her stylist speaking of maximalism. This is the content that would be considered “exclusive” i.e. not in the book or anywhere out there. It has this bland, charming quality to it, like a monologue praising people you admire. There’s nothing to take offense to, but there’s also nothing to take back.
There were moments when I wondered if the documentary is a companion piece to the book or a replacement for it. I haven’t read the book, so I am not entirely sure of the answer, but I get a sense that the book, like the documentary, peddles hope aggressively. But like I said, hope is an ephemeral reaction now. The attempt to make it a sustained movement needs more than just rousing speeches and humour. It needs an active destruction of what is ugly, and what is unwanted. But the Obamas don’t care for such a narrative. It’s always chin up, buttercup. But sometimes, the neck hurts. Then what?