Michelle Obama's documentary Becoming keenly captures her book tour, and the steely will to own one's story
Becoming, the docuementary, takes a tour through the story of Michelle Obama, covering much of who she was before she became First Lady.
Becoming is not a self-help book, it is a memoir. But for an entire generation of young female readers it has been nothing short of the former, encouraging them to become free thinking, hardworking citizens who can dare to be ambitious irrespective of their race, class, politics and economic status.
The Netflix documentary that released on 6 May featuring the book tour of the author, the former First Lady of the US, through 34 cities is then a dazzling, glamorous glimpse into yet another exciting ride of this magnetic figure, who as her brother Craig Robinson says is perhaps, ‘the most popular person in the world.’
Produced by Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, the documentary, also titled Becoming, takes a tour of Michelle's story, covering much of who she was before she became the 44th First Lady, but more importantly exploring what the next chapter of her life will be, post the White House. This is brought into sharp focus more so because even as FLOTUS, Obama was never the one to fit into the trope of ‘My husband is …’ and always managed to find a voice for herself.
Nadia Hallgren, who directs the work, manages to also capture those overwhelming moments of the tour, such as when Oprah introduces Michelle Obama to a packed crowd on her home turf of Chicago and she walks out to tell her story.
For those who have already read the memoir, there are no new facts to be found in the documentary except perhaps from Meredith Koop, Obama’s fashion stylist and consultant who notes quite candidly that Michelle is anything but a minimalist, or her daughter Malia confessing to her mother that she wells up every time they play Stevie Wonder at one of these events.
Still, while there appears to be no discernible reason as to why this documentary was made, it is nonetheless a jolt of optimism and hope at a time when people all over the world are struggling with the alarming consequences of a global pandemic. It is for instance, refreshing to see young faces sitting in community centres discussing their fears with Obama, of applying to colleges, of finding themselves amidst the prevailing inequality – ‘We can’t wait for the world to be equal,’ she tells them – and to also have the former FLOTUS interact with each student, yearning to hear the story of every young person.
At some point she also notes, “I have high expectations of young people,” and it is delightful to discover the faith she has in the youth, who would go on to become the future of her country. All this coming from a woman, who since childhood has owned and followed through her decisions, is reminiscent of the hope and can-do attitude disseminated by the Obama administration.
Consequently, what perhaps stands out the most all through the authorised documentary is Obama’s insistence on every person owning their story. She is here to warn us: "Don’t just become a statistic," someone who is identified solely by their grades, income and the college they attended, rather be unafraid to hold on to your story, where you come from and how you have become who you are.
In keeping with that spirit, we also get a glimpse of her home on Euclid Avenue on the South Side of Chicago, where she grew up. These snippets of looking at family photo albums and watching the good-natured banter between Obama, her brother and her mother, Marian Robinson also remind us of the value of family relationships, even her memoir emphasises on her mother instilling in her the value of ‘thinking for herself and using her own voice.’
The documentary does a brisk sweep of all the most popular anecdotes from her book too: how she first met the former POTUS, who arrived late at the posh law firm where she was an associate, how during the Obama campaign she was branded as an angry black woman, how she was sceptical of whether America was ready for a family like the Obamas to be in the White House and how when the Marriage Equality Law was passed she tried to dodge the Secret Service to go out and see the colours of the pride flag shining proud on the White House.
This homely feeling is quickly taken over by more official-looking matters such as getting in and out of armoured SUVs, making efficient exits through the backdoors of restaurant kitchens with her the security detail, and the general camaraderie Obama shares with her Secret Service guards, Melissa Winter, her chief-of-staff and her hair and make-up crew.
For me, reading and watching Becoming was an experience; a testament to what it means to live the American dream. The works are made special not because Obama speaks of empowering women or encourages kids to stay in school, but because she is a voice telling every person to own their identities, whatever they might be. She was the former First Lady, but she was also a woman who ancestors were slaves. And all through, maintaining this dual identity, refusing to conform to preset norms she, unabashedly in the face of every petty critic is not afraid to shout: When they go low, you go high.
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