If Michelle Obama wasn’t so adamant that she isn’t running for public office, the perfectly timed new Netflix documentary Becoming would sure seem like a campaign launch.
Dropping on May 6 on the streamer, the recently announced very authorized biopic of sorts could also be Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s worst nightmare or fondest hope, for very different reasons obviously. As it is, Becoming is at its foundation the start of “another chapter waiting for me out there,” as the former First Lady says near the documentary’s conclusion.
What that chapter is or will be is left open, but, despite her protests to the contrary, Becoming leaves no doubt Obama isn’t exiting stage left any time soon – whether to fulfill many a Democrats’ dreams and return to the White House as the VP to her husband’s VP, or blaze a new path in the culture.
Put it this way: When the then-First Lady told Democrats “when they go low, we go high” was the strategy to take on the GOP in 2016, I knew that Trump, the shamelessly dirty-fighting former Celebrity Apprentice host, was going to beat Hillary Clinton. For all Becoming’s deceptive opening limitations, I now wonder if there was a long game at play many of us missed in the turmoil of news cycles and tweets.
Starting with the once high-flyin’ lawyer leaving her and President Barack Obama’s well-appointed post-White House home, greeting her security detail and heading out in a big black Suburban, the Nadia Hallgren-directed documentary flashes back to those historic inauguration days of the Obama administration to remind us what hope once looked and felt like. Simultaneously, in this era of gangster dictators and would-be gangster dictators, and in the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, Michelle Obama now seems like a figure not just from another time, but of another time.
Honest, as any of the millions who have read Becoming, her 2018 book, know about recognizing her own limitations of career, motherhood and an extremely ambitious spouse, Mrs. Obama strips the constricting myth of the super-enduring black woman to reveal the real warrior underneath – though it really takes a while to get there in this documentary. However, with scenes of the hard-core Obama coalition sprinkled throughout the closing credits of the film produced by the Obamas’ Oscar-winning Higher Ground shingle, Becoming is very much a work in progress and hence good TV across the spectrum.
On another very conscious level, from backstage prayers to stage-door exits, that steely eyed security detail, SRO arenas, loyal entourage and Oprah introductions on her 34-city book tour, the early part of Becoming too often feels more like a Beyoncé concert — though as the clearly beloved and immensely empathic ex-First Lady proclaims, “No twerking.”
Shown in old footage and references throughout, the 44th POTUS himself doesn’t actually show up until about 30 minutes into Becoming. Yet, as Barack Obama says in the film, like when Jay-Z hits the stage at a Beyoncé show for a couple of tunes, it is clear this is an exercise in celebrity and cultural power. In that context, unplugged for the first time in a long time as much as such a historical figure as Michelle Obama can be, Becoming skims along the surface and slides past a lot of family and American history for the first half, as these types of films often do.
Pretty much neglecting the widespread talking heads of say Hulu’s successful Hillary docuseries (watch that review here), Becoming’s narrative is led partially by the bestseller on which it is based and its subject being interviewed by Gayle King repeatedly, plus marquee names like Stephen Colbert, Tracee Ellis Ross, Conan O’Brien, Reese Witherspoon and, of course, Oprah.
Still, Becoming doesn’t pull back the White House curtain that much, and, unlike Becoming the book there’s almost no mention of her husband’s successor — except in warning of the nation we are and need to own up to.
Nor, for that matter, is the candidate many thought would be Barack Obama’s successor brought up, or other political luminaries – it is as if the film and its subject are extending the protective force field that surrounds any First Family to silence the sidekicks, so to speak. There is the obligatory visit to the childhood home, the long talking-head stare by the star that contemporary documentaries love to show intimacy, and some glory shots of the accession and the two terms in office.
With significant roles for Obama’s mother Marian Lois Robinson, her brother Craig Robinson and a last-minute pivotal entrance by her daughters bridging the generations, there’s also the lingering pain of her father’s death and the racist and sexist attacks of political life in America.
I’m thrilled to give you a sneak peek of BECOMING before it premieres on Netflix on May 6. This movie tells my story, from my childhood on the South Side of Chicago to my life today—and it celebrates the powerful stories of the people I met along the way. #IAmBecoming pic.twitter.com/jXqGTMRIZc
— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) May 4, 2020
It is on that turf, after detailing the weight and stress of “eight years of trying to do everything perfectly,” the nearly two-hour film, on which Sundance vet Hallgren was also the cinematographer, becomes something else — something much more penetrating.
Weaving in meetings with book clubs, church groups, support groups and students, Becoming unveils its true clear and present aim as a not-so-subtle saga of the journey and the battles that women, especially working-class women of color, travel and fight almost as a matter of course every day. With an onstage wit and ease that perhaps years of being under the microscope and/or the confidence of insight and a strong family, this quest to “find the tools within yourself to be visible” is a celebration in fact.
Or, as the most popular woman in the world today states: “I am the former First Lady of the United States and also a descendant of slaves – it’s important to keep that truth right there.”
In that, determining an aberration that is still to find focus, the shift in the last act of Becoming shatters much of the muscle of the myths of the Obama years, as the deaths and names of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner are painfully listed. Just a few of the bodies and lives sacrificed on the toxic altar of American racism in a time when too many naively assumed the nation was moving into a post-racism period.
In Becoming the film, like Becoming the memoir, Michelle Obama makes no bones that she never shared the belief that discrimination and injustice was on the way out just because her husband got into office. The strategy now seems to be how to reframe the rules of the game more so than the game itself. Or as one of the fashion-forward Michelle’s stylists make clear at one point: “When I see this suit, I do see Elvis and I don’t have a problem with that.”
In an episode where a distraught Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart wakes up in an America that saw Hillary Clinton win the 2016 election, there’s a great line from The Good Fight‘s latest season opener about the former First Couple inking “an overall deal with Netflix” while Donald Trump leads the nation to ruin. To her colleagues in the alternative reality of a cancer-curing second Clinton presidency, the lawyer’s remarks seems almost absurd and a negligence of duty by the Obamas.
Watching the last half hour of Becoming, I’m now starting to wonder if in today’s politics, perhaps that’s how you really become a winner – on or off the ballot box.
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