When award-winning documentary filmmaker Nadia Hallgren met Michelle Obama in 2018, she only had 30 minutes to make an impression. No pressure, right?
“We talked about where we came from, how it shaped who we are and, of course, we talked about our mothers,” Hallgren said in a Netflix press release. “After 30 minutes, she said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
The result is Netflix’s latest high-profile release Becoming, which promises viewers a “rare and up-close look” at the life of the former first lady during her 34-city book tour. (The Obamas signed a multi-year production deal with Netflix in 2018). Like her bestselling 2018 memoir by the same name, the documentary details Obama’s experience growing up on the South Side of Chicago, attending Princeton University (despite a high school guidance counsellor who told her she wasn’t “Princeton material”), meeting Barack Obama while working as a lawyer in Chicago and eventually becoming the first Black first lady in U.S. history.
In the documentary, Michelle says writing the book and doing the international tour was a way of reflecting on those eight historic years in the White House, or as she puts it, “to figure out, what just happened to me?” It also offers viewers insight into who she is beyond the role of first lady—which, for instance, involves a glitzier wardrobe and a few more candid conversations.
The 1.5 hour documentary releases on May 6, and without spoiling too much, here’s what you can expect.
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Consider reading the book before watching the doc
While the documentary is lovely on its own, it’s made to go with Michelle’s book. The documentary depicts key parts of the memoir, but without added description—almost like a nod to those who took the time to read the book.
For those who haven’t read Becoming, the scene of Michelle playing an old, out-of-tune piano in her childhood Chicago home may not seem significant. Those who read the memoir, however, will know how that instrument played a large role in her childhood, how she learned to play from her great-aunt Robbie and how a piano recital taught her about privilege. So though the documentary is compelling on its own, it will be much better if you’ve read Becoming before watching Becoming.
Get ready for a whole lot of inspo
It should come as no surprise that, like her book, this documentary is absolutely full of inspiration. There are multiple instances where I pressed pause and rewind so her words would really sink in.
In addition to showing uplifting clips from her book tour, with famed moderators including Phoebe Robinson, Stephen Colbert and Gayle King, the film also follows Michelle during community events with small groups of young leaders. It’s at one of these events that Chicago high school student Elizabeth Cervantes tells Michelle that compared to other girls who take advanced classes and participate in tons of clubs, she doesn’t feel all that special. But when Michelle asks to hear more about her life, we find out that in addition to school, Cervantes works to help support her father and her three younger brothers. She is also one of the first in her family to graduate high school. “That story, with all the highs and lows and what seems so ordinary, and what seems like nothing to you, is your power,” Michelle tells her.
That is only one of many lines that stayed with me well after the credits rolled.
When talking about her relationship with Barack, and their experience in marriage counselling, she says, “One of the things I learned and I think helped our marriage was that my happiness is not dependent on him making me happy.” And during her book tour, she shares this advice which I plan on putting into practice as soon as we’re allowed to meet in-person again: “When somebody walks up to me, don’t look around, don’t look beyond them, look them in the eye, take in the story.”
Like the book, this documentary is full of moments that will make you pause, rethink and make you want to be better.
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The music may sound familiar
In the opening scene of the documentary, Michelle gets into a car with her heavy security detail and starts playing music, which she says she often does. Over the years, both Barack and Michelle have made several public playlists of their favourite songs. Many of the tunes featured in the documentary are straight from Michelle’s playlists, including the inspirational opening song “A God Like You” by Kirk Franklin, which was featured on her recent 2020 workout playlist.
Yes, it will make you cry. Multiple times
Full disclosure, everything from the news to puppy videos makes me well up these days. That said, Becoming definitely pulls at the heartstrings. The documentary details what Michelle endured as the first Black FLOTUS, ranging from allegations that a playful fist bump between the Obamas was actually a “terrorist fist jab” to repeated accusations that she looks “angry.” In the documentary, we get a glimpse of the toll that scrutiny took on her, and it is heartbreaking.
There are also multiple iconic moments, like seeing the Obamas beaming on inauguration day, that are made even more moving given how much the political landscape has since changed. Hearing Michelle speak about issues of race, inequality, injustice and perseverance—in a way that is both inspirational and polar opposite to the current White House administration—had me in my feelings. During the Nashville show on her book tour, Colbert concludes their on-stage interview by saying that he misses the experience of speaking with leaders that talk to the public about “hope and the possibility of change, which is what hope is.” That feels even more true these days.
No, she doesn’t speak directly about Trump
“When they go low, we go high.” Michelle sticks to those famed words in the documentary and never directly talks about her feelings about or interactions with the Trump administration. What she does say is that during the Obamas’ eight years in office, “Many were overlooking the racism and tribalism that were tearing our nation apart.”
When a student who lives on a First Nations reserve asks her for advice on how to deal with seeing MAGA hats in class and “an impact that you can’t describe, but it’s just there,” Michelle’s main advice is to persevere. “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,” she tells the student.
While she doesn’t dwell on the current president and his politics (I mean, to be fair, this is a doc about Michelle Obama, not Trump), the short clip of her discussing the 2016 election is powerful. “I understand the people who voted for Trump,” she says. “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…After all that work, they just couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.”
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We get a rare, albeit brief, interview with Sasha and Malia
In her memoir, Michelle talks about wanting her daughters to have as much of a normal childhood as possible, and trying to protect them from the spotlight. “Knowing that Malia and Sasha were basically off-limits, the White House communications teams began requesting the dogs for official appearances…They made excellent ambassadors, impervious to criticism and unaware of their own fame,” she wrote.
In the documentary, however, we get to see a candid moment where Malia goes backstage and tells Michelle how moving her arena show was. “This has demonstrated in a way, it’s just like damn, those eight years weren’t for nothing, ya know?” Malia tells her mom. The former first daughters, now 21 and 18 respectively, also do a super-short sit-down interview towards the end of the film, expressing their hopes for their mom post-White House.
It’s like watching a different reality
Not sure if this is just me, but seeing packed arenas, people flying to international destinations or readily embracing each other feels like an entirely different reality these days. Michelle is a self-described hugger and in a Netflix press release for the documentary, she acknowledged that aspects of the documentary now seem foreign in our new reality. “Things that once felt simple—going to see a friend, sitting with someone who is hurting, embracing someone new—are now not simple at all,” she says.
Combine that with footage of the excited crowds, full of hope, on the day of Barack Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 victory, and snapshots of what the Obamas accomplished over their eight years in office, and it feels like watching an entirely different world than the one we’re currently living in. But let’s be real, we could all use a bit of an escape.