Many famous people are touted for their communication skills, but few seem as naturally adept at just talking — plain, simple, responsive, funny, talking — as Michelle Obama. At one point in ‘Becoming’, the just-released documentary on Netflix about the former First Lady as she crosses the nation on a long arena-sized book tour for her autobiography of the same name, Mrs. Obama explains her ability to engage.
Even in the briefest encounters, she listens with concentration (while trying to sign books) and attempts to hear people speak, just as they are. “When somebody walks up to me, don’t look around, don’t look beyond them, look them in the eye, take in the story.” Some of the best parts of ‘Becoming’ are when the director Nadia Hallgren puts the camera behind Obama or just to the side as a range of people walk up proffering their emotions along with their copies and we see their few prepared or spontaneous seconds in her high beam focus as Mrs. Obama would see them.
We see her hold the hand of a trembling fan, empathize with a mother who’s survived postpartum depression, joke with a man who says he has a daughter with the same name as her daughter (‘Is she sassy like mine?’), and urge young people to stay in school. In every encounter, she manages to immediately discern the necessary reaction, whether to joke, console, tease, flirt or be the First Mom they want her to be.
She’s as talented as any improv artist or talk show host I’ve ever seen, the kind of person who frequently knows how to say ‘just the right thing’ with charm and a smile that can turn up dazzlingly or turn downward in a compassionate flash. Watching her responsive charisma may well feel like a balm in these times, when the current inhabitants of the Oval Office only seem to use speech to blunder, offend or repeat dishonest ‘talking points’ ad nauseam.
I could buy into the cynicism that the film is just edited to show only these best encounters and that there were probably many awkward ones, but it doesn’t feel that way. Here’s an accomplished, professional woman, a lawyer, a “political wife” who had to learn when to stay on script or go off of it, and who has greeted heads of states, heads of studios and still can sit in the church pews with a group of older African-American women and give them their due and speak to them on their terms. Michelle Obama’s skill at quickly responding to the wide swath of people she meets has been honed on a stage few of us can imagine (and therefore are fascinated by.)
But in a moment of disclosure, she almost off-handedly tells us why this exhausting book tour, undertaken after time of being away from the campaign trail, feels essential to her and why she’s up to the task. She describes it, not patronizingly, as “like an emotional, sociological dance with people.” These are perspectives she says she needs, even hungers for, because “all my interactions are kind of sanitized.” For a bright and searching person who got catapulted to the global stage (her brother Craig gets to the point: “everybody in the world knows who my sister is”), you can imagine she genuinely longs for the kinds of encounters that feel authentic to her (another reason she is so fiercely protective of her own children, who frustratingly, barely show up here.)
Mrs. Obama’s gift for telling her story with the timing of a stand-up comic is on full display in ‘Becoming’, and it’s a formidable one. Whether responding to Stephen Colbert on a stadium stage about whether Barack brings her coffee in bed on Mother’s Day (“Nah”) or talking about why she didn’t want to date him because it fell too neatly into workplace stereotypical expectations, the woman knows how to deliver a joke with a stand-up’s precision and make large crowds erupt in laughter.
Off the large stage, she’s refreshingly direct and serious when she meets with much smaller groups that apparently were arranged as part of the same tour. Gatherings of high school young women, of an arranged union between a book club for white women and a book club for black women, a meeting with Native American college students — these are sharp and frequently poignant.
This is especially true in what I would consider the emotional high point of the film. A high school senior, a young and sympathetic Latina woman, expresses some confusion as to why she’s been honored and invited to a meeting with such an important figure, when around her sit student council leaders and ‘A’ students.
Mrs. Obama gently but directly interrogates her. “Well, why are you here? Why do you work?” and then, after hearing a touching tale of hardship, seems to surprise the young woman by reframing the sketch of her demanding life. “Your story is your power” she tells her, and the Oprah-like phrase has never seemed less of an ‘empowerment’ cliché and more of a truth.
Hallgren stays with that young woman for a bit, and it’s beneficial to the film The scene also give us a glimpse of another movie that might have been even more of a complement to the book. A more inventive and less conventional film might have leaned in more deeply into using Obama’s tour as a scaffold to fold in the stories of the diverse citizens who respond to her with such affection in a deeper way.
Of course, the other thing these interactions with small groups reveal is what a fierce pragmatist Mrs. Obama is, and there’s something problematic to tease out there. When she reminds young people that they don’t have time to feel invisible or to internalize the oppression and racism they encounter, Obama is walking a fine line. I don’t think she means that all the work of healing from racism has to be done by the victims of it themselves, but the phrases she uses can sound that way. She may intend to give hard-won prudential wisdom that worked for her, but the truth is, responding to feelings of invisibility and systemic injustice is far more complicated, and the onus should be on the perpetrators. Though the film doesn’t explore some of the other troubling blind spots in Michelle Obama’s pep talks, you might recall the moral compromise of her public friendship with the Bush family, which has felt twinkly and less an example of ‘kindness’ but an inappropriate concession to a war criminal.
To be sure, this film doesn’t ruffle many feathers, but it might have benefited from a more rigorous approach. I wanted more questioning of the First Lady, not softballs designed to prompt another anecdote from one of the best-selling books of all time. We want something new, something more current, something fresher. We may want to know even more, if not by Mrs. Obama herself, but from solid sociologists and academics, about the considerable racism directed at the Obama family and why it persisted.
We see glimpses of the racism, and I can imagine that as the producer of her own film, she didn’t want to dwell on it. And certainly her own sharp analysis of how the barrage of bigotry the Obamas experienced was emblematic of the racist poison that a black president’s election drew out is thoughtful — you just may want to hear from others to shape the perspective. (That said, the film surpasses the book in being able to portray other telling moments, like how desperately the First Lady wanted to get past her own security detail so she could experience the assembling joyful crowds who celebrated the rainbow lights on the White House when marriage equality passed.)
Where Mrs. Obama does wade into the politics of division, she’s understandably miffed at the voters who didn’t turn up for the 2016 election. There’s little acidity for what happened and who happened as a result. The film would argue that its not ‘about’ partisan politics, but about Obama’s life as a woman and parenting activist who, like many an empty nester before her, is trying to figure out the next stage of her life, albeit under a microscope.
The one thing we gradually realize, and which may be exceedingly disappointing to her many fans, is that Michelle Obama feels like the years she gave in service to the American people are enough, and she’s ready to fade in the background. Well, as much as you can fade in the background when you have a Netflix deal.
There’s an unintended effect we may experience while watching “Becoming” at this point in our current reality of the pandemic. Numerous reaction shots in the film pointedly show a truly diverse audience assembling together, sitting closely together, reaching for Obama’s hand, in ways it’s suddenly hard to imagine in our near future. When will we be able to do that again — the inclusive crowd part, the gathering for a big night out part, the affirming touch part, even the selfie with a celebrity part?
The intended effect of ‘Becoming’ is a sense of hard-won uplift, and if you’re open to it, the film will feel give you that. It will feel briefly restorative, even if it leaves you wanting more time behind the stage curtain
‘Becoming’ may also leave you with a case of instant nostalgia, when Presidents and First Ladies spoke in complex, intelligent paragraphs and when empathy was seen as strength, not weakness, as well as when we could show up with a smile on our faces and have our values affirmed by a woman who could embody high fashion and chummy laughs in the same moment.
Beyond that, be aware that once again, Michelle Obama has gotten into the black tinted-window SUV, put on her headphones and is scrolling through her playlist. After everything you’ve read and seen in ‘Becoming’ book and film, it’s hard to begrudge her that, and you just wish her a safe ride home.