There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through “Becoming” when anyone aghast at the current state of the union may find themselves on the verge of tears. It’s Election Day 2008 and the archival footage shows crowds dancing in the streets, chanting over and over again, “Yes, we can!”
Looking at those images from the vantage point of 2020, you are forgiven if you wonder, “Can we?”
Arriving on May 6 as a Netflix Original documentary, “Becoming” is 90 minutes spent with Michelle Obama, former first lady of the United States, during her 34-day book tour promoting the publication of her 2018 memoir of the same name. Directed by Nadia Hallgren and produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, it’s an intimate portrait of a public figure, and one of its strengths is showing how comfortable, confident, and inspiring Obama has become now that she’s free to be herself instead of the wife of the leader of the free world.
The documentary follows the book tour on a more or less linear track, Obama filling concert arenas to capacity wherever she goes while drafting various media stars — Oprah, Conan, Colbert, Gayle King, Reese Witherspoon — as moderators. It also, like the book, periodically loops back for a chronological amble through her life. Her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, is present backstage and in the audience, as is her older brother, Craig, a deadpan live-wire, and when Michelle tells an audience “I am from the South Side of Chicago and that tells you as much about me as you need to know,” one senses a pride and resilience that are amplified in the childhood scrapbooks she flips through with her family. (Especially moving are images of her father, Fraser, who died in 1991, of multiple sclerosis.)
She was a perfectionist, an A student, who was never comfortable taking a back seat and then ascended to the most visible back seat in the world. And not only a first lady but a Black first lady, who couldn’t fist-bump her husband without being labeled a terrorist. A perfectionist is hard enough on herself; when the rest of the country insists she be perfect in every way, for every audience, it can be exhausting. The tour is one way for Obama to reflect on “what happened to me.” And also to remind herself that “so little of who I am happened in those eight years.”
Where’s Barack? He’s seen in the old footage and drops in on one of the tour Q&As, but this isn’t his show and he knows it. Daughter Malia is briefly glimpsed. Donald Trump is mentioned once in passing. It isn’t his show, either, which is a nice change. I may have awarded this straightforward documentary about a remarkable woman a half-star more than it actually deserves, but the lift one gets from time spent with a capable and thoughtful person — someone who can speak knowledgeably in coherent sentences and is so palpably able to connect with and care about people she doesn’t know — well, it’s a reminder of all our better natures.
Obama is great fun to be around, too, at ease in front of a sell-out stadium and more so in the smaller group sessions that are the heart of “Becoming.” A sit-down with two Chicago book clubs — one white, one Black — is a fascinating meeting of minds and realities, as one woman speaks of the racism she absorbed from her grandparents when families like the Robinsons started moving into white neighborhoods. Even more powerful are the sessions with high-school groups, mostly girls, in which the young women ask questions of this figure from the history books and you see their faces glow with the wattage and wonder of possibilities.
It’s also good that “Becoming” lets us get to know Melissa Winter, Obama’s longtime chief of staff and close friend; her loosey-goosey fashion consultant, Meredith Koop; especially Allen Taylor, head of Obama’s Secret Service team and, again, a valued member of her larger family. (A photo where Taylor, grim and unsmiling, follows his charge down a slide at the Great Wall of China is a hoot and one of his prize possessions.) The affection and respect with which everyone here treats each other is like air mail from a distant country.
Michelle Obama grew up in this country, of course, and the core of her story is that she was the first first lady to be descended from slaves. She speaks of meeting the tuxedo-clad African-American White House butlers on Inauguration Day and realizing that “these were my uncles.” And she confesses to thinking in 2008, “I don’t know if the country is ready for my husband. It may be. But it may not.”
She was right on both counts, and a large part of where we are now is because the “may nots” have never forgiven the rest of the country for making a Black man president. But “Becoming” doesn’t wallow in enmity. By showing the depth and breadth and colors and complexity of the audiences who fill the arenas for Obama — the white, Black, brown, old, young, upper/middle/working class people — the movie hints at what America itself may yet become.
In fact, all of “Becoming” has the power to restore a viewer’s spirits in these dark days of pandemic and paranoia. Remember when our leaders had intelligence and class? When “hope” wasn’t just a slogan but a mandate and a rising emotion? We still have a chance to get that hope back. Can we? Yes, we can.
Directed by Nadia Hallgren. Starring Michelle Obama. Available on Netflix. 89 minutes. PG (some thematic elements, brief language)