- Directed by Nadia Hallgren
- Featuring Michelle Obama and Barack Obama
- Classification PG; 89 minutes
In 2018, Barack and Michelle Obama signed an intriguing deal with Netflix: the former U.S. president and First Lady would, through their company Higher Ground Productions, produce a variety of films and documentaries to satisfy the streaming giant’s insatiable appetite for content. Maybe Netflix thought twice about aligning itself so closely with the Obamas in a Donald Trump world, or perhaps the streamer didn’t give a damn. Either way, the move felt like a definitive moment for the inseparable spheres of American culture and politics: the country’s largest purveyor of home entertainment, with almost 70 million American subscribers, was firmly in the blue-state business.
It makes sense. Hollywood has been interested in the Obamas even before the family left the White House – Barack’s youth was mined for the material of not one but two 2016 feature films (Southside with You and Barry, the latter of which Netflix acquired after it played the film-fest circuit). And the photogenic, witty, warm couple project an alluring air of celebrity cool; if you like them, you like them a lot.
So what to make of Higher Ground’s latest Netflix production, Becoming? The Obamas’ first two Netflix offerings, the lauded documentaries American Factory and Crip Camp, were compelling works that explored important, progressive topics. They also, I guess, exemplified Higher Ground’s extremely vague mission statement: “To harness the power of storytelling.” Becoming is something altogether different.
By tracking Michelle Obama’s 2018 nationwide book tour for her memoir (also called Becoming), director Nadia Hallgren hasn’t created so much a documentary as one very long promotional video for the twin interests of Higher Ground and Obama Inc. I have no doubt that there is a large and eager audience for this kind of no-warts-at-all look at the family, but to pretend that it is anything other than a commercial is a fantasy.
Listen: Despite the many missteps of the Obama administration, I desperately miss the calm, intelligence and capability radiated by the presidential family, especially the way Michelle sought to turn the White House into a home not just for her clan but the rest of America. And maybe releasing Hallgren’s footage in the not-unreasonable hope that it sends the current POTUS into a maddening shame spiral is reason enough to justify its existence. But Becoming is no more a work of documentary cinema than Donald Trump is a sane world leader.
“All my interactions are [usually] sanitized,” Michelle proclaims early on, pointing to how engaging with sincere members of the public on her book tour differs between the formal and bland bureaucratic niceties of her diplomatic past life. But she’s also unintentionally revealing the extent of which Hallgren’s work has been smoothed in a such a wrinkle-free fashion. The film offers plenty of footage of the former first lady traversing the U.S., chatting with talk-show hosts and sparking wild, stadium-sized bursts of applause. But Becoming offers precious little insight into who Michelle is – and too many clues as to how eager Netflix is to release anything carrying the Obama imprimatur.
Hallgren finds her best material when Michelle exits the frame and the director focuses however briefly on the people who found, and continue to find, hope in the Obamas’ story. As Hallgren hears from children, struggling teens and hard-luck working parents, I wished her camera would follow any one of them for more than a minute to capture some genuine human drama.
“If we’re going to get anywhere with each other,” Michelle tells Hallgren’s camera, “we have to be willing to say who we are.” But who is Michelle Obama? Becoming doesn’t provide an answer. Except, that is, a great saleswoman. Someone who could, say, sell a commercial to a company that has never streamed an ad in its life.
Becoming is available to stream on Netflix starting May 6
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