Becoming

 

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An inside view of Michelle Obama following her departure from the White House.

 
Becoming
   

Quite rightly America's former First Lady Michelle Obama has many admirers and they will appreciate this film by Nadia Hallgren. It announces itself as a documentary about her recent tour which took her to 34 cities as she promoted her memoir of 2018 which bears the same title as this film. In the event this piece combines footage of the tour with reminiscences that could be described as autobiographical sketches and the project has been carried through ably although it is one that carries the burden of at least three disadvantages.

 

The big drawback is that the film is inevitably in the shadow of the book being promoted. There are, of course, opportunities here to learn of Michelle Obama's childhood, her days at Princeton University, her meeting with her husband-to-be (already seen in the unexpectedly appealing dramatised 2016 movie Southside with You), her support during Barack Obama's presidential campaign and her awareness of being always under the spotlight during the eight years of his presidency. But, even if there are telling details here (not least how her initial impression of Barack as an opinionated person encouraged her to enter into marriage with a conscious determination to be an equal partner), one is left with the feeling that reading her memoirs (which I have yet to do) would offer the real insight beside which what this film can offer is relatively superficial.

 

The second problem lies in the fact that Becoming was produced by Higher Ground Films, the company founded by the Obamas: knowing that adds to the impression that the film is in essence a PR exercise. The access given to Nadia Hallgren, who was also the photographer, enables her to include behind the scenes   footage with Michelle's mother and brother and others in her orbit and late on daughter Malia makes a telling contribution, but the closeness allowed only increases the sense that we are seeing exactly what Michelle Obama wants us to see rather than a fully-rounded portrait.

 

As for the third issue that is something of an encumbrance, this is connected to the fact that what the viewer is really looking for is sincerity, the quality that has enabled Michelle Obama to achieve a real rapport when engaging with young people in schools as she did when visiting London. One finds that in Becoming the best moments occur when she is speaking at community events attended by students rather than at the public addresses when she is interviewed by the likes of Gayle King. One of the latter finds Barack turning up and calling her a great storyteller, a description linked to the suggestion that some of her tales are either embroidered for effect or represent her recollection which differs from his. What we see on these platforms is Michelle Obama as a highly adroit and professional interviewee as adept as any actor appearing in the somewhat artificial world of the chat show: she is doubtless sincere, but she is entertaining her audience and that is not what we want from her. What we do want (and what is happily available in many parts of this film) is her wisdom, her honesty, her recognition of continuing racial inequality (she even suggests that some people's prejudices may have been increased by their resentment of having a president who was black) and her sincerity in believing that the younger generation of Americans might justify the hope that a better future will come about in an America readier to embrace diversity in people. She expresses none of the anger that she might justifiably feel about President Trump but does acknowledge deep disapproval and disappointment over the people who might have been expected to support Barack Obama and the Democrats but then failed to vote.

 

At the close of Becoming the question is raised of how she sees her future given the extra freedom she now has through no longer being the First Lady and she talks of opening up a fresh chapter entirely. The foundation of Higher Ground Films may be a not insignificant part of that new chapter, but when it comes to Nadia Hallgren's film it feels less like a chapter than a footnote, albeit one that contains quite a lot to appreciate regardless of its limitations.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Michelle Obama, Marian Shields Robinson, Barack Obama, Malia Ann Obama, Natasha Obama, Craig Robinson, Allen Taylor, Meredith Koop, Melissa Winter, Valerie Jarrett, Gayle King.

 

Dir Nadia Hallgren, Pro Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness and Lauren Cioffi, Ph Nadia Hallgren, Ed Erin Casper, Nathan Punwar and Aaron Wickenden, Music Kamasi Washington.

 

Higher Ground Productions/Big Mouth Productions-Netflix.
89 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 6 May 2016. Available on Netflix. Cert. PG.