Cinephilia

Review: Becoming

Earlier this year, Hulu released a four-part documentary mini-series on Hillary Clinton; the aptly titled Hillary is an up-close and personal look at the politician’s life from her childhood in suburban Park Ridge to her experience campaigning for the presidency in one of the most bizarre elections to date. It’s a book-end of sorts, a piece to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on Clinton’s story in her own words—enough of letting pundits and columnists write it (and get it wrong).

Now comes Becoming, a 90-minute documentary that explores the life and experiences (so far) of another former First Lady, Michelle Obama. But this one, aside from being about a quarter as long—and as its title would suggest—feels very different. This is not the final word on a long and storied career of public service, steeped in scandal (real or imagined) and defined by resilience and ambition. This is more like an introduction, more like an arrival of a woman who’s seen a lot and achieved quite a lot and yet is just getting started on a journey defined by resilience and ambition.

A companion piece to her 2018 memoir of the same name, Becoming follows Obama on her multi-city arena tour where she shared her story from humble beginnings on Chicago’s south side to an Ivy League education and law career to moving into the White House and the first African American family to live there. Anyone paying attention for the last decade or so knows the general arc of her life, how she and Barack met when he arrived to be mentored by her at the firm where she worked; how she stepped away from her career in order to prioritize raising their girls, Sasha and Malia; how she used her time as First Lady to champion non-threatening but nevertheless important causes like support for the armed forces and sustainable, healthy living.

Thankfully, filmmaker Nadia Hallgren (who is also credited as the sole cinematographer) pieces together a much more robust picture of Obama, one that honors where she’s come from and what she’s accomplished while creating a space for what’s yet to come. Like other documentaries in the vein of “intimate access to a celebrity,” Becoming has an almost too-polished sheen to it; surely, we are only seeing the moments a carefully crafted strategy deems we should. We’re invited to dinner at Obama’s older brother Craig Robinson’s house, and it’s endearing the way he calls her “Meesh”—a nickname only he could get away with assigning her. We sit in on small group chats Obama participates in during each stop of her tour, sometimes with a bookclub of older African American women, sometimes with young people still searching for their way forward in life. Each time, she’s attentive and present, offering wise and thoughtful input to the conversation.

None of this is any less moving because it is planned (heads up must be given, release forms must be signed, etc.). In fact, it’s a testament to Obama and her sincere ability to connect, to empathize, to relate to whomever she’s with in spite of all the barriers—secret service officers always watching, a chief of staff keeping her on schedule—that could easily prevent it from happening at all. At a post-event book signing, she says as much, sharing that it is a conscious effort to look whomever is in front of her in the eye, to be completely tuned-in and attentive in the moment.

Obama narrates many moments like this, in the style of a direct-to-camera interview that’s interspersed between milestones in her life so far: the loss of her father in 1991, Barack announcing his candidacy in 2006, sitting through Trump’s inauguration (“a slap in the face,” she says). Hallgren skillfully moves the film along through each of these moments, taking appreciated detours into Obama’s relationship with Craig, or the brutal treatment she received in the press throughout her husband’s presidential campaign (and how she learned to navigate it). Some of the detours work less well than others, mainly those that diverge away from Obama’s story to share snippets of life from the young women in the small discussion groups. Not that these aren’t worthy stories to learn—they’re just perhaps better suited for a different film from Higher Ground, the Obama’s production company (a Netflix partner and producer on this film).

Becoming, as it harkens the arrival of a woman who is no where near finished making an impact on the world around her, also serves as a sort of exhale, a loosening of the corset of the presidency that finally allows Obama to breathe deeply and step forward into whatever is next for her, free of the expectations of a political party, the media, the American people. More than once, she mentions what a relief it was to leave the White House; the disclosure that she actually sobbed as they flew away that day in 2017 is perhaps one of the most relatable moments in the film—tears for the transition into uncertain hands, surely, but also tears as release, as if a valve had been loosened and all the pressure had somewhere to go, finally. Where it goes from here—where she goes from here—is anyone’s guess, and will be our privilege to witness.

Becoming is now streaming on Netflix.

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