“Becoming” is a portrait of a First Lady on fire

Becoming Michelle Obama Michelle Obama in "Becoming." (Courtesy of Netflix)

Nadia Hallgren’s Netflix film probes the post-presidency life of Michelle Obama, and the pressures she faces both in and out of the White House.

“I am from the south side of Chicago. That tells you as much about me as you need to know,” former First Lady Michelle Obama says, looking straight into the camera with the candor for which she’s become famous. Her hair falls in natural curls around her face, a statement in and of itself. It says this is who I am in a way she couldn’t have expressed during Barack Obama’s time in office. 

Celebrity culture doesn’t always extend to political spouses, but from the beginning of Barack Obama’s first campaign, his wife has been almost a rock-star figure — a person with an intelligence that would be intimidating if she were not so warm and approachable. 

As such, Michelle Obama has been a lot of things to a lot of people. Vilified by some for daring to suggest that kids eat vegetables or that—shockingly—America might not be perfect as-is, she’s been a beacon of hope to others. Women of all ages, class, and backgrounds see her as a living example of poise under pressure. There have been countless thinkpieces and essays about what she means to not just women, but the rest of the country at large.

becoming michelle obama
Courtesy of Netflix

When her book Becoming came out in 2018, we were able to read in her own words how exhausting and terribly public the life of a first lady can be. Now in Nadia Hallgren’s Netflix documentary of the same name, viewers get an (almost) unfettered look at Mrs. Obama and learn about her family and the experiences that formed her as the film follows her massive, multi-city book tour and conversation series. 

Seeing the packed auditoriums of the mothers, daughters, men, and women of all ages and backgrounds lining up to meet her, it’s clear that Michelle Obama isn’t going anywhere. She connects with every person in line, from the gushing college students to the young mother who weeps while thanking her for speaking up about postpartum depression. So many are still looking to Michelle Obama for guidance and comfort, to remind themselves that we have been better, and that we can be better again. 

While it’s subtly stated, so much of Becoming revolves around the expectations the public still has of her, not only as the first black First Lady, but as an Obama in the era of Trump. Some viewers may find the lack of discourse around Trump frustrating, but Obama never gets reflective, only reactive. 

This is not to say that the pain and trauma around Donald’s Trump’s victory never comes into conversation, but that pain is directed less at the man himself—and his supporters—and more at the people who didn’t show up to vote. “I understand the people who voted for Trump,” she says. “The people who didn’t vote at all, the young people, the women, that’s when you think, man, people think this is a game. It wasn’t just in this election. Every midterm. Every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up. After all that work, they just couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.” 

Some viewers may find the lack of discourse around Trump frustrating, but Obama never gets reflective, only reactive. 

Becoming has little to do with the presidency of her husband, or even President Obama himself; though he makes a few appearances he is never given much time in the spotlight. Hallgren’s focus stays tightly on Michelle slowly regaining the things she lost in those eight years. Her privacy, the space to breathe, the time to reconnect with family and community. 

The most rewarding parts of the documentary are those that follow Michelle Obama as she speaks to church groups, book clubs, and kids in high school—mostly working class, minority kids with backgrounds similar to her own, kids who are now tasked with trying to become successful adults during the time of Donald Trump. Her candor with them is refreshingly unvarnished, her expectations of them high. Life isn’t easy for anyone, not even former first ladies.

One student asks her “How will you get your life back on track after such a big interruption?” A tiny smile tugs at the corner of Michelle Obama’s mouth at the question. “There is no getting back on track,” she says. “Everything is different now. So I had to figure out who I wanted to become.” 

Becoming premieres Wednesday, May 6 on Netflix

Becoming Trailer:

Beau North
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