Michelle Obama’s Netflix Film “Becoming” Gives Emotion Without Intimacy
Michelle Obama’s new Netflix documentary Becoming is the televisual equivalent of a motivational slogan T-shirt that says something like “It’s cool to be kind” or “You got this, girl”. In it, we follow the former first lady as she travels around the US on the 34-stop book tour for her globally bestselling memoir of the same name. Combining footage from on stage and off it, the film tells us her story. She recalls what it was like growing up in the south side of Chicago with a dad dying of MS; how she told the White House butlers to take off their tuxedos and stop tidying her kids’ rooms so that Malia and Sasha might grow up knowing how to put on a bedsheet; the school guidance counsellor who told her she wasn’t “Princeton material”, to which she now smiles: “I went back to the school recently and the principal was like, ‘She doesn’t work here anymore’.”
Becoming was made through the Obama’s own production company, Higher Ground, so unsurprisingly it feels a bit like an inspirational infomercial, bordering on hagiography. Though interesting topics are touched upon – marriage counselling, postnatal depression, her mum’s favouritism of her brother – rarely are these topics pursued in enough detail to become insightful. For instance, the film mentions the time during Barack Obama’s campaign trail when a fist bump between him and his wife was branded the “terrorist fist jab“ by the right-wing press. Attempting satire, the New Yorker magazine published a cartoon of the couple depicted as jihadis. Few got the joke and more fuel was added to the conspiracy that Michelle Obama hated America and was in cahoots with Iraq. Of this experience, Michelle Obama says in Becoming: “They went after me like they went after candidates. It blindsided me.” What she says is true and unfair, but I want to know what she did on those nights she was called a terrorist? Did she cry? What did her staff say? Was she annoyed at her husband for taking on a job that made her life so stressful?
But what Becoming lacks in intimacy, it makes up for in emotional outpouring. One fan is so overwhelmed upon meeting Obama that she can barely breathe. “Don’t make me cry,” jokes the former first lady, squeezing the woman’s hand the whole time. “I just got this face done.” The congregation of a church sits with Obama and one very elderly woman talks about the experience of seeing Barack’s inauguration: “I never thought I would see that. For that I thank you.”