A Review of the Netflix Documentary: Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’

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Cadence Chen

Michelle Obama’s 34-city book tour for her memoir ‘Becoming’ is featured in her documentary.

Former First Lady, lawyer, author, wife, and mother. Michelle Obama’s experience as a little girl from the South Side of Chicago growing up to become the First Lady from 2009 – 2017 is one that inspires and teaches many.

On November 13, 2018, Michelle Obama released her autobiography Becoming, which sold over 1.4 million copies in the first week and stood at the top of The New York Times Bestseller list for over 15 weeks. This success was followed by stadium-filled book tours and a Netflix documentary, also entitled Becoming.

The reading and viewing experience are largely contingent on the preexisting perception of the former First Lady. I read the book and watched the documentary with an impartial perspective because I wanted to separate the person from their politics. While the memoir is a reflection of Michelle Obama’s past, the film takes viewers through her book tour process, a recent endeavor, as she questions what is next for her life.

This documentary is not any different from any other out-of-the-spotlight documentary; it is a reflection of the time in the public’s eye and contains a few raw moments, which were all tied together with the obligatory inspirational messaging. While the documentary is hackneyed at times, not even 20 minutes in, I began to tear up. The cameras captured teary-eyed, inspired faces, as fans clutched onto each and every word that escaped from Michelle Obama’s mouth. Her eloquence and ability to relate to the audience were undeniable. I was witnessing the tremendous impact that one person could have on so many lives.

Although Netflix advertised this documentary as “intimate,” I was disappointed to be met with the same Michelle Obama whom I recognized from her White House days. On the campaign trail, she had always displayed this level of vulnerability with the audience, continually emphasizing her upbringing in her hometown. Because of this openness, Americans already perceive Mrs. Obama as relatable, when the role of a national figure can seem so distant from pedestrian life. The film does not expose the audience to another layer of Michelle Obama, but rather relies on our familiarity with her.

Having read her autobiography in book form almost a year ago, I noticed that the documentary brushes upon prominent moments featured in the book that I would have otherwise forgotten. The portrayal of these stories, however, did not add more details or offer a fresh take on them. These moments were often told with a voiceover of Michelle Obama summarizing the story, alongside guiding photos that flashed on the screen. In contrast to her memoir, it felt repetitive. The memoir dove much deeper into these personal moments and insightfully reflected on her life.

In the book, Michelle Obama wrote, “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.” Through writing, she expressed how the music around her shaped her with the sound of young children “slowly and imperfectly learning their scales.” This complexity was not effectively expressed in the film. Readers can better understand the trends in Michelle Obama’s life by reading her memoir instead. For example, her box checker mentality is a motif used deftly to describe her former outlook on life; this concept was only briefly mentioned once during one of her staged moments in the documentary. The habit that this film has of flashing from one story to the next did not give justice to what were truly poignant moments in the book.

Under superficial stadium lights and face-to-face with celebrity talk show hosts, Michelle Obama appeared to be staging a performance rather than giving the audience her full authenticity. The best moments were when she personally interacted with her supporters and communities. She was filmed talking to young female students in an intimate setting. In the absence of a script, her charisma, humor, and wisdom shined through. She said in response to a question about how she was planning on getting her life back on track, “What I’ve learned is ‘Get back on what track?’ It’s a whole new track. It’s not going back. It’s not — You know, it’s all different, and it’s different forever. So it’s not getting back on track, but it’s creating a new track.”

Michelle Obama is an American figure who captivates many, as her presence in the media continues to be of great interest to people.  She expresses the belief that in a world riddled with inequity, you must rise above adversity and be unapologetically yourself.

To watch Becoming on Netflix (subscription required), click HERE

Michelle Obama is an American figure who captivates many, as her presence in the media continues to be of great interest to people.

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