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Review: Becoming (2020)

Becoming (2020)

Directed by: Nadia Hallgren

Premise: A documentary about Michelle Obama. Becoming follows the former First Lady on the book tour for her 2018 memoir of the same name. It also covers her marriage to Barack Obama and the challenges and priorities of her life before and after the White House.

What Works: Becoming’s greatest asset is its subject. Michelle Obama is a likable and engaging public figure and the filmmakers capitalize on those qualities. The picture is at its best when Michelle Obama reflects on her life in the spotlight and the challenges of trying to do her job and raise her family knowing that every gesture, word, and outfit will be analyzed and critiqued. In those moments, Becoming allows some human insight into a familiar public figure. Becoming is generally well made. It’s deftly edited. Becoming runs just eighty-nine minutes and the brevity maintains the documentary’s energy.

What Doesn’t: Becoming is among the first films to result from the Obama’s production deal with Netflix and it exists in a larger context of Michelle Obama’s other media ventures like her podcast. This documentary has to be understood as an infomercial for the Obama’s post-White House brand. While that may sound crudely commercial, Becoming is polished and calculated in the same manner as a sales advert. And much like any marketing pitch, it is thin on substance. Becoming presents the Obamas, and particularly Michelle, as an American success story. Michelle Obama’s biography—as someone who came from a working class family to attend an Ivy League university, practice law, and serve as First Lady—certainly fits that bill. But the filmmakers also buffer off any edge to her story. The movie is full of positive but vague platitudes about the challenges faced by young women, especially young women of color. As Becoming keeps reminding us, the Obamas were the first black family to occupy the White House, putting Michelle Obama in a unique position to opine on that issue. But the film offers no references to the actual obstacles women of color face or how to surmount them. Becoming regularly verges on sycophancy with its emphasis on adoring crowds falling over themselves to applaud Michelle Obama. At no point is Becoming critical of the former First Lady or the Obama Administration. This takes a sourly transparent turn when Michelle Obama blames the voters for the failure to elect a Democratic successor to her husband’s administration. Becoming possesses no introspection or self-doubt and it is ultimately a feel good but facile presentation of someone who is already one of the most recognizable people on the planet.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Becoming is effective at what it is trying to be: an infomercial for the Obamas and for Michelle Obama’s memoir. It’s no more than that. Fans of Michelle Obama will find it gratifying but it offers remarkably little substance or insight.

Episode: #813 (August 16, 2020)