'Becoming' Offers A Revealing But Selective View Of Michelle Obama

May 6, 2020
Originally published on May 6, 2020 11:07 am

It's telling that the most barbed political criticism Michelle Obama drops in her new Netflix documentary Becoming isn't about Donald Trump's birtherism or the commentators who tried to dismiss her as an angry black woman.

Instead, she criticizes fickle Democratic supporters while talking about Trump's 2017 inauguration in a roundtable discussion.

"The day I left the White House, I write about how painful it was to sit on that stage — a lot of our folks didn't vote," she says in the film, which debuts Wednesday. "So it was almost like, a slap in the face."

Moments later, she expands on that idea, "I understand the people who voted for Trump, [but] the people who didn't vote at all — the young people, the women — that's when you think, man, people think this is a game."

The backbone of the documentary comes from footage filmed behind-the-scenes and onstage during the 34-stop tour to promote her best-selling memoir, also called Becoming. The tour featured celebrity hosts like Oprah Winfrey interviewing the former First Lady in arenas packed with fans; she spoke on everything from visiting a marriage counselor with her husband to raising young black children in a mansion like the White House.

Her concern: during a visit with Laura Bush, she noticed the White House butlers were African American and Latino men decked out in tuxedoes.

"I didn't want them growing up thinking grown African American men served them in tuxedoes," she says. "The truth was that some of those men were (like) my uncles — they were the Pullman porters and other folks — I didn't want my girls to grow up with that image."

Race is, of course, a huge subject in the film, as Michelle Obama details feeling immense pressure to be perfect as wife to the first black president. For fans who admire the family and their message of inclusion, Becoming will be a bittersweet reminder of how differently the White House's current occupants conduct themselves.

Still, when young people ask Michelle Obama how to face the often-intangible forces of systemic prejudice and tribalism, Michelle Obama has a consistent answer: Stay focused. Work hard. Never accept a limiting label.

"I never felt invisible," she says, praising her parents for teaching her confidence. "We can't afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen."

When a Native American student tells her he felt uneasy in classes with students wearing Trump hats, she responds: "So you're in school. Be in school. Get your frickin' education. Barack and I, all through this presidency, through the lies and the stuff they said about us, all we could do was wake up every day and do our jobs. Let our jobs and our lives speak for itself."

That sounds an awful lot like putting the burden on oppressed people to transcend their own oppression. The Obamas have faced criticism in the past for such "respectability politics" — which also imply that if a person of color doesn't succeed, perhaps it's because they didn't try hard enough. (Remember those Democratic voters who stayed home?)

It would have been compelling to see Michelle Obama face some tough questions from someone who legitimately challenges her ideas. But Becoming is produced by the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions, following in the footsteps of other recent documentaries — like ESPN's The Last Dance or Hulu's Hillary — which counted on significant participation and support from key subjects to succeed.

As good as all of these efforts are, there is also a sense that they can only go so far in challenging their superstar subjects. In Becoming's case, that means a distinct lack of critics shown onscreen and moments that feel too much like an ad for the boss.

Despite Michelle Obama's candor, Becoming offers a selective view. Barack Obama doesn't sit for an exclusive interview; daughters Sasha and Malia speak in just a few places. And the former First Lady avoids any direct criticism of political rivals, continuing to go high when others might consider going low.

Even with its flaws, Becoming is a compelling documentary, offering a carefully revealing look at a whip smart, ferociously practical woman trying to understand how her historic time in the White House changed herself, her family and the nation.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In a new Netflix documentary based on her memoir, former first lady Michelle Obama talks about everything from facing down Racism to her fashion choices. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has our review of "Becoming."

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Michelle Obama talks a lot about how her honesty in public speaking was used against her, crafted into tough headlines to provoke conflict or controversy. So I wonder how the world will react to this moment in "Becoming," when she criticizes Democratic supporters while talking about Trump's inauguration in a roundtable discussion.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BECOMING")

MICHELLE OBAMA: The day I left the White House, I write about how painful it was to sit on that stage, and that a lot of our folks didn't vote. So it was almost like a slap in the face.

DEGGANS: She elaborates in the film a moment later.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BECOMING")

OBAMA: I understand the people who voted for Trump. The people who didn't vote at all - the young people, the women. That's when you think, man, people think this is a game.

DEGGANS: "Becoming" shows that, for Michelle Obama, few failures are worse than treating life like a game or not doing what is necessary to succeed. Consider this advice she gives a group of Native American students when one of them asks how to deal with feeling uneasy around classmates wearing Trump hats.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BECOMING")

OBAMA: So you're in school. Be in school. Get your frickin (ph) education. You know, Barack and I all through this presidency, through the lies and the stuff they said about us, all we could do was wake up every day and do our jobs and let our jobs and our lives speak for itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GOD LIKE YOU")

KIRK FRANKLIN: (Singing) Everybody want to be like you. They...

DEGGANS: The backbone of the film is footage, behind the scenes and on stage, from the tour to promote her bestselling autobiography also called "Becoming," including a moment when she blasts a song by gospel star Kirk Franklin to raise her energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, " A GOD LIKE YOU")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey.

DEGGANS: That tour featured celebrity hosts like Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert interviewing the former first lady in arenas packed with fans. Michelle Obama spoke on everything from her visits to a marriage counselor with Barack Obama to raising young black children in a mansion like the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BECOMING")

OBAMA: First of all, I didn't want them grow up thinking that grown African American men served them in tuxedos because - no, the truth was that some of those men were my uncles, and they were the Pullman porters and the folks. And I didn't want my girls to grow up with that image.

DEGGANS: Race is, of course, a huge subject, as Michelle Obama details the pressure to be perfect as wife to the first black president and attacks that dismissed her as an angry black woman. But there's a lot more. We see interviews with her brother and mother, details of her early life on the South Side of Chicago and smaller discussions where Michelle Obama meets with young people. The camera even follows a few of them home to document their challenges.

Still, this is a selective view. Barack Obama doesn't do an exclusive interview. Daughters Sasha and Malia speak in just a few places. And Michelle Obama wisely avoids any direct criticism of political rivals, urging throngs of admiring young people of color to focus and work harder when they're treated unfairly. But that puts the burden on oppressed people to overcome structural racism.

"Becoming," produced by the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions, falls short by failing to feature critical voices who might legitimately challenge her ideas. At times, it plays too much like an ad for the boss. But the film does offer a close-up look at a whip smart practical woman trying to understand how her historic time in the White House changed herself, her family and the nation. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.