Last week, I posted a short video to Instagram that featured a few ideas for films, documentaries, and television shows that people could watch to champion black voices. When it comes to the films that I review on this blog, I don’t tend to put too much thought into what I’m watching. It’s either whatever I fancy watching or whatever I can access at the time. I’ve never really looked at the diversity in my film choices in the same way that I do with my book choices. I make an effort to read a wider range of authors and stories every year, so why don’t I do the same with films? Why do I not do more to listen and pay attention to black voices and stories? Why do I not think more about who is directing and writing the films that I watch? All I care about is the story. It’s the very thing I get angry about whenever anyone speaks out against Oscars So White criticism. It’s something I need to work on and there’s no better time than now. Starting with one of the documentaries that I suggested on my Instagram post.
It’s weird to think that there was a time when somebody told Michelle Obama, one of the world’s most influential women, that she couldn’t do something. That she wasn’t “Princeton material”. But those were the exact words out of her old college counsellor’s mouth. Of course, Obama went on to prove her wrong and was soon not only a Princeton graduate but also Harvard Law School. Not bad for a girl from the South Side of Chicago. She went on to have a successful career but she was thrown into the limelight when her husband ran for President in 2007. Suddenly every move she made and every word she spoke was analysed by the whole world. Being the first Black First Lady of the United States of America, clearly came with a lot of consequences.
Throughout Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House, his wife was forced to look, act, and talk in a certain way. One half of the country was waiting for her to fail and the other half was hanging off her every word. Yet, she was never fully able to use her own voice. That is perhaps one of the reasons why she chose to write a memoir once her family had left the White House. Becoming was published in 2018 and was accompanied by a huge book tour. Obama went from being the First Lady to being a genuine superstar. The accompanying behind the scenes documentary has come to Netflix to give a glimpse at who she really is. Of course, being produced by the Obama’s own production company, it doesn’t exactly break any boundaries but it is a very watchable affair.
The main body of the documentary is made up of shots of the ex-First Lady getting in and out of armoured cars and chatting to her security detail. That and plenty of footage of emotional women getting teary when they come face-to-face with her. We already knew that Obama was a hero to young women everywhere but the documentary really wants to make sure there’s no doubt. As this is her film, Becoming never tries to rock the boat. It never delves too deep into her real character. We see her as the funny, silly, and carefree woman but there is never a hint that she has an edge. She has playful banter with her brother but that’s as close as she comes to losing her cool. I’m not saying that I was expecting an expose on her evil inner self but this a very considered portrait.
Which I guess is leftover from her time in the White House. In the documentary, Obama talks about having to be careful about what she said and wore. How she became a symbol of the approach that her husband was taking with America. The film looks back on how the press treated her when her husband was running as a candidate. How she was portrayed as an angry black woman for speaking her truth. How pounding fists with her husband caused the couple to be portrayed as terrorists on the front cover of The New Yorker. She is careful about what she says and how she says it. She is careful about the people she is interviewed by and the people she meets on her tour. It’s all very standard but fairly underwhelming stuff.
The bits that really stick out are where the story gets personal. The way she opens up about her family. She and her mother revisit her childhood home and talk about her father. They have a meal at her brother’s house and cheekily discuss who is their mother’s favourite. We see her spend time with her Chief of Staff, Melissa Winter. These are the moments that will have you believe this is an intimate portrayal of a very public figure. The problem is, that’s not actually what we get. It’s not that this isn’t a perfectly watchable documentary. It’s not that Michelle Obama isn’t inspirational, kind, and down-to-earth. It’s just it all feels so scripted. You get the feeling that we’re being fed just enough to keep us satisfied but without having to go into the good stuff. The important stuff.
Obama had the chance to make this a really meaningful look at her life and her beliefs. It was her chance to finally have her say about so many things. To speak about how she felt after Hilary Clinton lost the election in 2017. To talk about how she feels about what Donald Trump is doing to her country. To discuss her real feelings about what the press did to her and her family. Maybe even talk about how she really felt about her husband’s decision to throw their family into the political sphere. Instead, we just get the standard party line. It’s lovely yes but I kind of wanted more than just platitudes.