Becoming review: Michelle Obama manages to be more spontaneous than scripted in Netflix documentary

Michelle Obama admits her speeches became more 'scripted' during the 2008 Presidential Election. However, in Becoming, she manages to do away with the teleprompter in her head.

Devansh Sharma May 08, 2020 08:16:31 IST

3.5/5

For Michelle Obama, the last three-and-a-half years have probably been abundantly liberating, and at the same time, acutely introspective. She stepped out of the White House after getting relieved of her duties as the First Lady when Barack Obama was in office. She is aware that she was very little of who she is during the eight years Barack was in office, and has finally come into her own.

In her 2018 memoir Becoming, are further details about these emotions, but the companion piece to that book, a documentary of the same name, suggests her struggle continues. It captures the promotional book tour Michelle embarked on two years ago in order to "discover how she's changed in the past eight years," as she puts it.

Becoming review Michelle Obama manages to be more spontaneous than scripted in Netflix documentary

Michelle Obama in a still from Becoming

On being forever in the public eye

As she spends some quiet moments in her motorcade or while getting her hair done before an appearance, her ruminative face suggests she is still in the strangles of the White House, rather than being absorbed by the concluding lyrics of Black Panther song 'Pray For Me': "I make my own law" (on loop).

She is discovering while on the book tour that she may try hard to break free of her perception as the FLOTUS but her longstanding entourage and the people around may still treat her with the reverence for Mrs Obama. She may have moved on from her official position but for someone who has been in the public eye for eight years, invisibility is not an option. It is probably her example, and of several more, that has prompted Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to relinquish their royal duties in the UK in order to evade the intrusive media glare.

Having said that, Michelle's confessions indicate she is aware of how drastically the scrutiny has affected her, and how life will never be the same again. She recalls in a chat show during the tour how she was targeted during the Presidential Election campaign back in 2008. "When they couldn't prove Barack is a Muslim, they tried to show his wife is a crazy black lady," she says, her disappointed voice accompanied by visuals of several accusatory placards, comparing Barack to Osama bin Laden and painting Michelle as a dictatorial threat to the US democracy. "People were still not ready to accept that it were the blacks who had taken over their White House."

She agreed that her public speeches subsequently became more scripted than spontaneous. "I started using the teleprompter," she says. The best bits in the documentary are when she is not reading out from a teleprompter inside her head. In her organic interactions with young people during the tour, she has much more than philosophical vomiting to offer. She quotes examples from her personal life frequently in order to lead by example.

On her marriage to Barack Obama her post-natal depression

The most insightful inputs by Michelle come from her confessions on her relationship with Barack. She looks back at the time when she met him at Harvard University, where she was her research mentor. "He had this Obama kinda voice, which made me feel like it's not your regular nerd," she says, prompting the live audience to erupt in laughter. "When he asked me out, I was not too keen because it'd be so predictable: he's black, she's black, both are from Harvard; you must be a couple right?"

Becoming review Michelle Obama manages to be more spontaneous than scripted in Netflix documentary

Barack and Michelle Obama in a still from Becoming

In the documentary, there is only a passing mention of the post-natal depression she underwent after giving birth to her children. She has given a detailed account of the same in the book but the documentary sticks to her struggles of keeping up with the marriage. "It's not easy to mix lives of two persons and find your place in it. I knew how Barack was, and I had to pull up my sock for what was to come," she says, admitting she had little interest in politics then.

She also talks about finding a balance in the relationship after her kids were born. "I often wondered how Barack got the time to go to the gym after our kids were born. But then I realised I didn't have to question him going to the gym. I had to make time for myself to go to the gym. And that's how it has been with us since then," she says, which explains how she has become her own woman, unlike other predecessors, including Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, who continue to be remembered in their larger-than-life husbands' shadows.

Michelle blushes like a schoolgirl when she talks about Barack during a chat show. And then Barack makes a cameo in the documentary, coming up on the stage to offer her a bouquet of flowers. "It's like when Jay-Z comes for a surprise performance in Beyonce's gig," Barack says as Michelle continues to blush.

Maintaining normalcy around a frenzied popularity

While Barack is never seen talking about his wife directly to the camera, director Nadia Hallgren incorporates inputs from Michelle's brother, daughters, and staff (head of security, chief of staff, and stylist) into the narrative. Michelle's confession that she uses fashion as a narrative tool, and her stylist claiming her taste is all bling, make for only minor observations about someone who has truly emerged as a style icon. How Michelle marries style with her politics would have been an interesting area of study but the documentary does not dwell more on that.

Michelle also addresses how she has tried to protect her daughters from the luxuries of the White House. "I've asked the cleaning staff not to do my daughters' daily chores like making their bed. They're not going to be here forever so they should learn how to do all this. And I won't raise daughters who can't even make their own bed," she says.

On a more sociopolitical front, she does touch upon the elephant in the room. The sheer frenzy, especially among black women and girls wanting to interact with Michelle, testifies her popularity as a black idol. Thus, there was no requirement for the two detours Hallgren takes to turn the spotlight on two girls (one black, one white), who explain how Michelle inspires them. This only distracts the audience from the fascinating subject of the documentary.

Becoming review Michelle Obama manages to be more spontaneous than scripted in Netflix documentary

A still from Becoming

Keeping her modesty intact, Michelle tells the girls she was able to free herself from social ostracisation only because she was true to herself. "I never saw myself as invisible. We can't wait for the world to change for us to be seen," she says. She also offers a brief word of advice for immigrant students studying in US colleges during Donald Trump's administration. "I can't imagine what you're going through. But I'd suggest you keep studying hard. All that Barack and I could during those two terms was to go and do our jobs well."

Statements like these show the documentary is not a political tool to attack Trump. In fact, she claims she does not mind those who voted for Trump. She is let down by those who did not bother to vote. And that is what Becoming is all about. Michelle seeks to continue doing what she has done so far — to inspire hoards of people to exercise their rights and powers.

Her journey continues as she is on her way to the next phase of her life. She has not become what she wants to be; she is still becoming.

Becoming, produced by Michelle and Barack's Higher Ground Films, is streaming on Netflix.

Rating: ***1/2

All images from Netflix.

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