After so many momentous years in spotlights owned and operated by other people, it’s no wonder Michelle Obama wanted to regain control of her life, her horizons, her image and the “former First Lady” phase of her story.
On its own terms “Becoming,” the Netflix documentary streaming Wednesday, is more proficient than distinctive. I say this having just read Obama’s hugely successful 2018 bestseller, an eloquent and lasting Chicago story. There too the subject controlled the telling of the narrative; there, the results were inspired.
Running 89 minutes, director Nadia Hallgren’s smoothly engineered doc delivers a primer on the author’s upbringing in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood; her life and career pre-Barack Obama; and before her deep, disquieting dive into the glare and scrutiny of national politics.
It was a “swerve,” to use a word that comes up often in the memoir, Michelle Obama never really wanted. Her book is about how she kept her hands on the steering wheel of her life, often amid the vitriol of a nation hellbent on division and terrified of history in the making.
The Netflix project is comprised largely of live footage from Obama’s 34-city book tour. There are a few bookstore appearances, and many visits with some wonderful, clear-eyed students at schools around the country, including Obama’s alma mater, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago.
FEELS CAREFULLY CALIBRATED
Mostly, though, Obama played the superstar arena circuit, as when she launched the tour at the United Center with Oprah Winfrey. In a prayer circle backstage, Obama and her team bow their heads before the event so many still talk about. They certainly do in my house.
After “eight years of trying to do everything perfectly,” she says in one exchange in the film, it’s time to let that image maintenance go a little.
The Netflix “Becoming” nonetheless feels carefully calibrated to a fault. The visual strategy and editing rhythms feel part of a promotional effort, not an inquiry. (The Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions has a deal with Netflix for a variety of productions; this is one of them.)
In its straightforward embrace of its subject and its filmmaking approach, “Becoming” recalls the breezy strengths and self-aggrandizing limitations of the 2017 sequel to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” In the image-control department, it’s also a distant cousin to the Michael Jordan doc “The Last Dance” on ESPN, to name another Chicago legend.
HIGHLIGHTS HER QUALITIES
Set your expectations accordingly, and you’ll still get a lot out of “Becoming.” At its most unguarded-seeming moments, the film does offer glimpses of Obama’s extraordinary ability to connect with young people, old people — people, period.
The onstage highlights speak to her honest, self-searching qualities: On the topic of relationship difficulties and unmet expectations with her husband, she acknowledges she “took Barack to marital counseling so that they’d fix him.” How two supremely contrasting personalities negotiate their lives together is a lesson for the masses, even if you’ve never lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
There’s no way to experience “Becoming” apolitically, not now. You don’t have to consider it first-rate documentary filmmaking of any sort to feel something watching it.
At one point, to the delight of thousands in one of the arena tour stops, Obama recalls the sleepover her daughters had with friends the night before the new first family was moving in. “The Trumps are coming!” she says. Yes, they were. And here we are.