Netflix dropping a surprise documentary about Michelle Obama right now feels like an attack and a blessing at the same time. An attack because it’s a smack in the face, a stunning reminder of a better time in America, four long years ago. And a blessing because, well: same. Remember when, an absolute eon ago, the President of the United States wasn’t a deranged narcissist seemingly bent on destroying the nation? Remember what it was like not to be embarrassed by the residents of the White House? (I mean, even that doofus Dubya suddenly seems regal in retrospect.) Remember what it felt like it have solid leadership, even if you didn’t always agree with it?
Look, I’m not saying that Barack Obama was a perfect President — far from it. I have huge issues with his eight years in the White House, many stemming from the fact that I’m much further to the left than he ever was. But it could well be that Michelle Obama, the former First Lady, was damn near perfect, or at least in all the ways that matter for a First Lady, a horrid, thankless job for a modern woman that she performed in a way that made her a sweet ’n’ salty paragon of the position.
Becoming is definitely not a warts-and-all portrait of Michelle Obama. It verges on the advertorial, a 90-minute ad for her hugely bestselling 2018 written memoir, with which it shares a title and a biographical bent. Cinematographer Nadia Hallgren, making her feature debut, follows Obama on a multi-city tour to promote the book, which the book probably did not need, given the popularity of its author. But it does give us an opportunity to see Obama interacting with hordes of fans at book signings, after Q&As in packed stadiums. (Most book tours have stops in bookstores that are lucky to draw a few dozen people.) It is deeply moving to see how excited teen black girls are to meet her — my God, the power of a role model, which these girls have not had of a stature anything like Obama’s before, and the shrewd advice she has for them — but also others, too, people of all ages, races, and genders, people speechless or even in tears at her mere presence. And to see how Obama genuinely listens and makes real connections with her fans, even if only briefly. There are very good reasons for Obama’s immense popularity, and they are not things that even the most puffy of puff pieces could fake.
As Hallgren interweaves behind-the-scenes stuff with cleverly edited snippets of those Q&As — sometimes tossing together bits from different events to give us a cohesive narrative about, say, how she met Barack, or how her mother was such a positive influence on her — we get a glimpse of a woman who is authentically smart, funny, self-aware, and down-to-earth, or is so good at faking all of it that it makes no difference. More than that, she is incredibly relatable, although perhaps moreso to women of a Certain Age. She’s only a few years older than me, and I don’t have kids or a husband — and obviously I have never been First Lady of the United States — but watching this movie, and listening to her talk about juggling all her responsibilities, and how the world cannot (yet) accommodate women truly Having It All… man, I felt like I could be pals with this amazing person, that I would be overjoyed to bask in her wisdom and her strength and her wit. That’s probably not true, of course; that she inspires such sentiment makes her damn near irresistible.
I remember the kidding-not-kidding jokes about how Obama was more qualified to be President than her husband was, and how unfair it was that her candidacy was beyond fantasy. And then there’s that bizarre and seemingly uniquely American notion about political candidates being successful when voters can imagine themselves having a beer with them. I suddenly get that in a way I never have before about a male candidate. I suspect that having a glass of wine with Michelle Obama would be a hoot, and that she’d get me, and I’d get her. Becoming is a sincerely warm and welcoming sort of movie, like spending time with a friend you didn’t realize you’ve had all along.