“This is totally me, unplugged.” So says Michelle Obama says of the book tour here depicted, undertaken in 2018 to promote her bestselling autobiography. The fact that Obama, the filmmakers and we the audience all know full well that it is no such thing provides the tension underlying this gentle, flattering portrait of the 2009-17 First Lady.
Of course she’s plugged – not just into a sound system (for this blockbuster tour visited arenas, not bookshops), but in terms of how spontaneous or authentic she can be. One can hardly blame Obama herself for this. As one of the most scrutinised women in American history, she has learned the hard way about having every aspect of her self-presentation interpreted in the most negative and sinister of lights. After being dragged over the media coals for perceived missteps early in her husband’s presidency, she says, “I stopped speaking off the cuff.”
But if Obama repeatedly returns in this film to the relief of no longer having to “wake up every day and maintain that level of perfection”, it’s clear that image maintenance remains paramount. Her onstage anecdotes about her childhood, her career and her early romance with 44th President Barack Obama are delightful, but polished and crowd-pleasing enough that one suspects they might have been run past a focus group.
Being First Lady might require a tremendous amount of pragmatism and self-discipline, but so too does setting oneself up as a professional source of inspiration. As newly-minted media moguls producing high-end, politically progressive documentary work, the Obamas are arguably more of a brand than ever – and one that unambiguously foregrounds virtue as a selling point. The name of their production company – Higher Ground – references Michelle’s own famous maxim about negative campaigning (“When they go low, we go high”), but also carries the promise of morally elevating material.
Not that Michelle has to fake being likable, or charismatic, or inspiring. She is all of those things, and if we don’t see a lot of unguarded behaviour here, nor do we expect that there’s a prima donna monster being held at bay. Unflashily directed by Nadia Hallgren, Becoming captures Obama being interviewed onstage by the superstar likes of Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert; chatting to autograph-hunters who are overwhelmed at coming face to face with her (“What did you think was gonna happen?” she asks one); visiting with groups of schoolkids; and talking through aspects of her book, such as her family history and her relationship with the White House.
She is, with every audience, articulate, warm, funny and consummately controlled. A pervasive message is not to give time to self-doubt or negativity: “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen,” she tells a group of schoolchildren fretful about having to contend with others’ prejudices and judgments.
One senses a rawer edge of vulnerability when her family are around, especially her charismatic and clearly competitive older brother Craig, but even that is somewhat sitcommed-up for the cameras – Craig is seen throwing her off her stride by being arch about her outfit, and then mock-grumbling that “No brother should have to deal with their sister being the most popular person in the world.” Another endearing domestic moment sees poised and hyper-articulate daughter Malia offer a media-studenty critique of the stage show, in which her tired mom clearly isn’t terribly interested.
Politically, things are kept fairly neutral. The Trumps pop up just a couple of times, and Hillary Clinton not at all. Obama’s edgiest moment is when she fiercely criticises those voters who stayed away both when her husband needed them, and when there was a Trump presidency to stop. “Our folks didn’t show up – just couldn’t be bothered to vote at all,” she says. “That’s my trauma.”
This would be a deeper film if this observation were developed, as the ambiguous racial messages and lessons of his presidency were unpicked by Barack Obama in the series of interviews he undertook with Ta-Nehisi Coates after his departure from the White House in 2016. Who didn’t show up, and why? Since this film is likely to be very much preaching to the converted in terms of the positive aspects of the Obama presidency, it would have been interesting to see its subject engage more meaningfully with where reaching out failed; where messages might have been misjudged; where criticism hit home not because it was cruel but because it was true. Its unstintingly complimentary depiction of its subject makes this film a warming watch and a good teaching aid, but lessens its force as a historical document.