Two of the documentaries to earn the most Emmy nominations this year come from Netflix and Higher Ground Productions, the production company established by former President Barack Obama and Mrs. Obama.
The Oscar-winning American Factory claimed three nominations; Becoming did one better, claiming four, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, and directing and cinematography nominations for filmmaker Nadia Hallgren.
For the documentary, Hallgren followed the former first lady from North America to Europe as Mrs. Obama made promotional appearances for her bestselling memoir, Becoming. She says the project began with an unexpected call.
“I was just home one day, sitting at my kitchen table, my phone rang, and it was Priya Swaminathan, who runs Higher Ground Productions, the Obamas’ production company,” Hallgren recalls. “She tells me that Mrs. Obama is getting ready to go on this worldwide book tour, and that they thought it could be a great opportunity to document it. Wasn’t sure yet if it would be a film or something that just lived in Mrs. Obama’s archive, but they wanted to see if I’d be interested and, of course, I was.”
There were other “layers to get through,” Hallgren adds, like a crucial face-to-face with Mrs. Obama. “She hired me on the spot, which was incredible. And then the tour was starting relatively quickly, so I got really thrown into the deep end of this endeavor.”
The film contains moments on stage and behind the scenes from about two dozen of the tour dates, at venues filled to capacity with 10,000 or more fans.
“It was so incredible to be in those arenas with Mrs. Obama during that time…You’re in these crowds where everyone is so thrilled to be there, and just full of this excitement,” Hallgren recalls. “The whole idea for the film was having this extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience and, ‘How do I get an audience to feel the way that I’m feeling right now?’”
At each stop a different celebrity interviewed Mrs. Obama, ranging from Oprah to Reese Witherspoon, Tracee Ellis Ross and Stephen Colbert. Mrs. Obama revealed what it was like for the eight years her husband was president and she was first lady, to be constantly scrutinized, often through a prism of race and gender. Her attire generated endless commentary (she drew some rebukes for going with a bare-armed look for her first official White House photo); right-wing commentators often tried to portray her as an “angry Black woman,” and even before they got into office a fist bump the Obamas exchanged on stage caused a furor, with some conservatives labeling it a “terrorist fist jab.”
“It’s hard to wake up every day and maintain that level of perfection that was absolutely required of me and Barack as the first Black president and first lady,” Mrs. Obama says in the film. “Barack and I lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation.”
“The idea that the Obamas were held to a different standard in the White House was not only important for me to tell that story, but it was important for Mrs. Obama as well,” Hallgren shares. “Part of what she hoped to do with writing her book, as well as making this film, was to really just be transparent about the experience that she had, and speak about it very honestly.”
There is a prescient section of the film where Mrs. Obama discusses the heartache of being in office when so many unarmed African-American people were killed by police, in custody, or by armed white civilians: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, among numerous others.
“That’s something that I had personally never thought about, while those events were unfolding on the ground in America. I never thought to myself, ‘Oh, what does Mrs. Obama think about this, as a Black American?’” Hallgren comments. “For me, that was also something really important to include, not just her as a public figure, but her emotional, personal life in the White House and what that experience was like for her.”
Last week on her podcast, Mrs. Obama disclosed she has experienced “low-grade depression” in recent months, during the coronavirus pandemic. She attributed feeling “too low” at times to the isolation of quarantine, but also two other factors: seeing racial strife in the wake of protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor, and the “dispiriting” effect of watching news out of the Trump administration.
“I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels,” Mrs. Obama said on the podcast, “where you just don’t feel yourself.”
Filming well before the pandemic lockdowns, Hallgren also encountered a reflective Michelle Obama, who was facing a transitional moment in her life.
“She talks about it in the film, she’s an empty nester. Her beautiful children that are young women right now, they’re in college,” Hallgren notes. “And she’s just like us, trying to figure out what’s important to her and what’s next in her life.”
Hallgren describes the editorial process putting together the film as a smooth one.
“I definitely did get notes from Mrs. Obama, but they were often really helpful,” the director comments. “What she actually did was help me be able to expand the emotional experience that she was having during those times, and other than that, I can honestly say that there wasn’t any real disagreement in terms of the direction where I wanted to take the film.”
Becoming brought Hallgren the first Emmy nominations of her career, and something to make her the envy of many—the rare chance to spend extensive time with Mrs. Obama.
“She’s one of the most down-to-earth and warmest people that I’ve ever been around,” Hallgren says. “The first time that I met her—she knows that when people meet her for the first time that it’s a very nerve-racking experience—she worked to make me comfortable. She gave me a big warm hug when I walked in the room…saying, ‘It’s okay, it’s just us. We’re here. Sit down, let’s have a conversation.’”