Review: “Becoming” Gave Us a Roundtable Discussion Instead of a Story
What is the role of the first lady of the United States? Technically? Nothing. She is not mentioned in the Constitution, nor does she have any explicit, official duties. She is not a public servant. But, practically speaking, she acts as an unofficial advisor to the president; hosts state functions; uses her popularity, which often eclipses that of her husband, to campaign on his behalf; and occasionally salvages priceless paintings from burning buildings. She is generally well liked but self-effacing in contrast to and perhaps because of her husband’s gravitas. Aside from Secretary Clinton, who had political ambitions of her own, most presidential spouses tend to focus on their pet projects and shy away from the limelight.
So what are we to make of former first lady Michelle Obama’s unparalleled popularity and public prominence? She is the subject of a recently released Netflix documentary titled “Becoming,” which chronicles her time before the White House and is loosely based on her eponymous memoir. Her 448-page tome did not disappoint and debuted to the tune of 1.4 million copies sold in its first week, and was the best-selling book of 2018 with 3.4 million copies sold. The book tour, which was featured heavily in the documentary, encompassed dozens of cities and sold-out arenas across the country.
Why is there such a demand to hear from Mrs. Obama? In his own Netflix special, iconoclastic comedian Bill Burr scoffs that he is “tired of first ladies in general,” and wonders aloud, “when did they start acting like they got elected?” I’m sure many can sympathize with the sentiment that American presidents’ spouses and families often garner superfluous attention. For an international perspective, does anyone care what German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband has to say?
Nonetheless, in the case of Michelle Obama, there is no denying her unique place in history and her singular experience as the first black first lady of the United States. I could not tell you much about her White House garden, or how successful her national exercise initiative was, but I will never forget when, at a campaign event in 2016, she proclaimed, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” To impassioned applause, she continued, “And I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” That line, though succinct, is poignant, powerful, and it always gives me goosebumps.
Unfortunately, her documentary is less awe-inspiring. Despite the seeming abundance of untold tales and palace intrigue, the film offers little insight into Mrs. Obama’s formative years and instead serves as promotional material for her book. The heavily produced documentary mainly borrows footage from the book tour; the anecdotes serve as compelling soundbites but lack depth and idiosyncrasy. It is as if the memories are to be shared but not dwelled upon. Further, the filming style doesn’t lend itself to meaningful reminiscing; instead, the priority — perhaps like the first lady’s hurried schedule — is to rush to the next scene.
The documentary allocates an unbelievable amount of time to shadowing Mrs. Obama as she partakes in roundtable discussions with high school and college students from around the country. She makes it clear to the viewer that she cares about the struggles of the youth, particularly in the era of Donald Trump, but the American public and viewers around the world already know Mrs. Obama. We know she is a compassionate, principled individual — she was named the most admired woman in the world in 2019, after all. By watching the film, viewers endeavored to learn what made her the woman she is today.
Regretfully, too much of the documentary takes place in the present or is forward-looking, and the viewer is left to wonder about the foundational parts of Mrs. Obama’s life. Aside from several interviews with family members and moderate attention given to Mrs. Obama’s early years, much is left to the imagination, or presumably, the book. The most interesting questions are left unasked, and the remaining time is filled with the details of supporting characters. Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff discusses her backstory, and even her Secret Service agent is given time to muse about his favorite photos, but extraordinarily little time is devoted to the former first lady’s studies at Princeton, law school, and her career as an attorney — experiences that most would consider to be foundational. Perhaps even more painfully, a pitiful amount of time is allotted to detailing Michelle and Barrack’s meeting, mentorship, budding relationship, and Illinois Senate years. By comparison, Secretary Clinton appeared on Howard Stern’s radio show for hours and painted an extraordinarily intimate portrait of her life. She spoke about being jeered by her male peers in law school; discussed what it was like to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a child; and even sprinkled in the details of her previous boyfriends, including one in Vermont who had the “body of an Adonis.” Those are some intriguing tidbits from a former first lady who wasn’t even selling a book, not to mention a former first lady who is notoriously cautious with her words.
It’s a shame that the director of “Becoming” didn’t slow down, cut the supporting cast, and spend more time on the details of Mrs. Obama’s character-shaping experiences. While the abbreviated clips from stadium tours portrayed a glossy, pithy former first lady, and roundtable discussions proved slightly uplifting, a no-frills interview on The Howard Stern Show would have given the viewers something more meaningful. A sequence of sound bites may sell, but it’s the curious minutiae that make a story memorable and relatable.