Netflix’s newest documentary Becoming takes an inside look at Michelle Obama’s book tour and life story in an uplifting and refreshingly altruistic break from the dredges of day-to-day life.
Just when we thought life couldn’t get any bleaker, in swoops Netflix and Michelle Obama with Becoming, reminding us that, no, life isn’t all terrible all the time. Although the Obamas have been out of the presidential spotlight for just shy of four years, Michelle Obama hasn’t slowed down when it comes to blessing the world with her grace and wisdom. In 2018, she published her memoir, Becoming, which detailed her life both in and out of the White House.
Flash forward two years later and a documentary version of the memoir has dropped on Netflix, ready to heal the world with inspirational music and slo-mo shots of Mrs. Obama strutting out on a massive stage in a pristine pantsuit, ready to inspire the next generation of America’s leaders.
The documentary takes a look at her life (and her time as First Lady) as she moves stop by stop through her book tour, using the different small-group sessions she has with local students to take detailed looks at important events in her life. It’s a clever way to structure the documentary because it simultaneously allows for a chronicle of the book tour — which is the main reason for the film’s existence — while also generating brief segments that align just as chapters would in a memoir.
In terms of filmmaking, it’s a fairly by-the-numbers documentary. Nadia Hallgren nails all the hallmarks of a solid documentary, but we didn’t find any moments to be particularly noteworthy or memorable. The film doesn’t seem to build as much as it flows along, which can sometimes make it feel strangely inconsequential, even though Mrs. Obama’s life has been anything but. With the exception of some excellent (and at times deeply emotional) music by Kamasi Washington, the filmmaking as a whole is nothing to write home about.
Still, the content of the film strong enough to carry an otherwise unremarkable vessel, which is what most audiences are sticking around for anyways. The film does get quite a bit of its runtime from footage of the Becoming book tour (which is a given), but we can’t help but wish it wasn’t so rooted in being about the tour itself, as opposed to the content of the book.
We were hoping to learn more about Mrs. Obama’s time in the White House and as First Lady, but instead there’s more about the campaign trail and how she adjusted to life after leaving it — not so much the eight years themselves. Interestingly (and perhaps for the better), the film generally veers away from mentioning the current administration, even though there would be plenty to talk about, should it have decided to go that route.
Instead, there are a few brief, non-specific references, but for the most part, the film’s focus is on uplifting and inspiring it’s viewers — not cracking down on or lashing out against others. On the subject of lashing out, however, one of the documentary’s most moving sequences is a look into how the media impacted Mrs. Obama’s mental health, especially during the campaign trail. Hearing her accounts of her state of mind while watching her slowly begin to speak less and less at rallies and events is incredibly saddening, and gives an idea of just how much media scrutiny she was under. Although it’s tough to watch, it’s certainly one of the film’s strongest moments.
Another interesting aspect that may have otherwise gone unremarked unless Mrs. Obama brought it to light herself was just how much her wardrobe was shaped by public perception and restrictions of being in the White House. There’s a clear distinction between what she wore during her tenure and the outfits she wears on the book tour, which feels like a very visual representation of the restrictions and judgments passed on women in places of authority.
While those two particular segments stood out to us as strong moments where the documentary really makes use of it’s subject’s unique insights, for the most part, we couldn’t help but wish that Becoming had gone deeper or been a little less squeaky-clean when it came to detailing her life in the White House. It’s a solid documentary, but at time lacks depth and doesn’t go the step further when it very clearly could.
However, in spite of its relative shallowness, Becoming is still well worth the watch thanks to its inspiring leading lady, beautiful music, and gripping narrative of the struggles and triumphs of being the first (and only) Black woman to serve as first lady.
Did you see Becoming? What are your thoughts on the documentary? Sound off in the comments below.