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When Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production banner reached a lucrative first-look deal with Netflix in 2018, speculation about what the shingle’s output would look like abounded. A talk show with either Obama? A series of post-presidential follow-ups based around favorite Obama political issues?
Instead, the Obamas had exactly zero onscreen presence in the Oscar-winning American Factory, which Higher Ground became involved with after Sundance 2019, or the acclaimed Crip Camp, which opened this year’s Sundance with the Higher Ground name already attached. Both were extremely solid and well-regarded documentaries, but neither necessarily arrived with the sort of clear Obama fingerprints some viewers might have been hoping for (or had their hackles pre-raised for).
AIR DATE May 06, 2020
Higher Ground’s new documentary Becoming is probably closer to what proponents and detractors alike were expecting from the Netflix pact.
Directed and shot by Nadia Hallgren — co-lenser on last year’s tremendous College Behind Bars — Becoming shares a title with Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir and has a lot in common with Spike Jonze’s new Beastie Boys Story on Apple TV+. Becoming blends staged conversations from Obama’s 34-city book tour, moderated by the likes of Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey; visits to locations that are significant to her; ample news and archival footage from the Obamas’ lives in the White House and before; and reflective conversations on where Michelle Obama finds herself with her 60th birthday (still four years away) on the horizon.
If Beastie Boys Story was a commercial for a phase of life that Ad-Rock and Mike D were ruminating on, Becoming is a commercial for the thing that Michelle Obama is still, well, becoming. Or maybe a commercial for the idea that when Michelle Obama becomes the thing she’s becoming, it’ll be an exciting and special thing. Or maybe a commercial for other people to follow in Michelle Obama’s footsteps and “become” themselves? It’s all a little thin and nebulous.
Expect some moments of emotion and inspiration from Becoming, but if you’re hoping for some sort of, “Oh, by the way, I’m preparing for a Senate run!” or “Look, if Joe Biden needs a vice president, wouldn’t Biden-Obama be catchy?” announcement, it’s definitely not forthcoming. Were that the case, the obvious comparison would be Hulu’s recent four-hour Hillary Clinton documentary, in which the former first lady’s ideology and aspirations, and their thwarting, were front and center. This is less directly autobiographical than that project, and less in the myriad-axes-to-grind genre.
Following Obama’s own “They go low, we go high” edict, Becoming isn’t a platform for Michelle or any other Obama to comment on the sensation of seeing the fruits of eight years in Washington undone by the subsequent administration. Donald Trump is mentioned (not seen) mostly in passing and mostly as a symptom.
As Obama laments, “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.'” It doesn’t require a 90-minute documentary to know that this is where her heart is. The conversations with celebrity moderators, held in massive venues alive with a palpable energy, find Obama in candid, humorous, seemingly comfortable form. But where she truly shines is in the smaller conversations with young people, usually young women and young women of color; her ability to connect in those settings is remarkable.
I sense that there might have been a version of this documentary, possibly even a limited series, that would have used these conversations as more of a centerpiece. It isn’t just where Obama is at her best, but it’s also where the people interacting with her are at their best. The lines at book signings tend to invite hyperventilation and tears, while the chat circles invite story-sharing and confessions. After several of these smaller events, Hallgren follows an attendee and provides a tiny bit more context to their own hopes and dreams.
This is something I wish had been done more consistently or with more depth, because as it stands here, it almost feels accidental when we go home and visit with young Shyla and her family or trail Elizabeth to her last day in high school. These moments point to an attempt to open up the world of the documentary, without sufficient follow-up. I’m fairly sure that Michelle Obama would tell you that these voices, all full of potential, are the ones that should be focused on.
Becoming thrives when it’s just following Obama around, with trained cinematographer Hallgren prowling at a respectable distance, getting access but really letting Obama lead the way, which often requires long tracking shots through the bowels of hotels or stadiums. Some of my favorite moments here are just Obama selecting music to listen to when being driven around from event to event or the authentic and completely relatable bickering and bantering between Michelle and brother Craig Robinson, who, in a different family, probably would have enjoyed the full spotlight as a star college athlete and former Division 1 basketball coach.
There are separate direct-to-camera interviews with Hallgren and Obama, but there isn’t always enough clarification as to what is candid and what is prepared. Still, Obama’s story is her story and she tells it well, peppering in the lessons that structure the book — usually messages about embracing her background, finding her voice and the responsibility to use this platform that she never wanted. As former chief of staff Melissa Winter puts it, “She doesn’t like politics.”
We meet the people in her immediate sphere, figures you’ve probably seen in the background of candid photos or videos without realizing it. These actual supporting figures include Winter, security chief Allen Taylor and stylist Meredith Koop, who all keep the gushing to a minimum. They’re present as representatives of a life that Obama was thrust into, vestiges of a past she can’t live without now.
Of course there are brief cameos from Barack Obama, rolling into one Chicago appearance like a flower-bearing rock star, and daughters Sasha and Malia. But they’re only brief cameos. The presence of the kids feels very much like a response to the question, “If they don’t make even a token appearance, will people draw the wrong conclusion? Yeah, probably.”
Speaking in veiled terms about the contemporary political space, Michelle Obama observes, “We’re at a crossroads of where we have to think about, ‘Who are we as a nation?’ I remain hopeful that people want better, if not for themselves, then for the next generation.”
Michelle Obama is at a similar crossroads and Becoming situates her at a fork in the road, but not as somebody who has made a decision on which path to take. Without being revelatory, the documentary shows the events that made her, points to the things that inspire her and leaves viewers hanging as to where we’re likely to see Michelle Obama next — or if that’s even the question we’re supposed to ask. The documentary is inevitably enriched by whatever Obama-related nostalgia you bring to it, without actually feeling fully realized as a documentary on its own.
Premieres: Wednesday (Netflix)
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