We live in uncertain times, but there’s one certainty: There’s probably a documentary about a world-famous Windy City icon on your screen.
First, ESPN debuted "The Last Dance," its ongoing ten-part miniseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, then Netflix went and somehow one-upped a basketball legend with a former First Lady with the streaming service’s surprise debut of "Becoming," a similarly polished and pleasingly nostalgic doc that’s more of a puff piece than a true peak behind the curtain. If this was a political campaign – and sorry for those with their fingers crossed, but there’s no announcement to be found in here – this would be an interview at the late night studio as opposed to the news desk.
If "Becoming" feels more self-portrait than portrait, that’s because, well, it is. As with Jordan’s Jump 23 production company and "The Last Dance," director Nadia Hallgren’s doc comes courtesy of the Obamas’ Netflix shingle, Higher Ground Productions, delivering their third release with the streaming company after the recent Oscar-winner "American Factory" and the inspirational disability activism deep dive "Crip Camp." Michelle Obama feels as much author as she does subject – "Becoming" is based on a memoir, after all – and while authorized biopics and self-produced docs are nothing new, it gives the doc a careful and manicured air as opposed to something actually candid and meaty.
It’s not as if Hallgren has to search hard to find things to flatter about her star, though, as she rides in the passenger seat along for the former First Lady’s recent book tour, discussing her life and experiences to crowds of thousands upon thousands. (Which, yes, Milwaukee, the Brew City stop from last March makes a brief cameo as she pokes fun at the evening’s moderator, Conan O’Brien.) Regardless of one’s politics, Michelle Obama’s undeniably an engaging public speaker, a terrific storyteller, and a magnetic stage and screen presence, talking with loose and playful ease about her childhood, her college years and meeting the future president, as if she’s talking to a warm group of friends as opposed to a mass of strangers.
In between book tour appearances, "Becoming" makes occasional stops at some meaningful locations from across her life, dropping by her South Side Chicago childhood home and having dinner with her family. These essential places and people helped encourage and develop her voice – one that she inspiringly talks of forming and fighting for throughout her life story, from a high school counselor who tried to place a ceiling on her aspirations to even learning how to stand up for her own ambitions and goals while dating a president-in-the-making going full steam ahead.
Even more inspirational than seeing her voice seize her platform is watching "Becoming" share that platform with others. Along with personal stops, Obama also visits with several community groups across the film – from young students to women’s organizations and church groups – to take questions, to talk but also to listen. The doc follows suit, taking lovely detours to follow a few young students, exploring their lives and ambitions as well. Much like "Crip Camp," the film’s maybe most moving in its unspoken depiction of representation, as you realize how few white male faces you’ve seen as opposed to how many minority groups and faces of color you’ve seen tell their own stories and share their experiences. The audience pays witness to the quiet weight of what it means to hear a voice like yours on a stage or a screen, and how that power and inspiration flows to others.
Maybe that’s why it’s hard not to be disappointed that, for a documentary about strong and bold voices speaking up and using platforms, "Becoming" seems so timid of letting too much of its star’s truly make the cut.
"So little of who I am happened in those eight years. So much more of who I was happened before," Obama tells a group of students, helping excuse the doc’s soft-focus on more recent events. Her statement’s undoubtedly true – but it’s also undoubtedly material that many have already witnessed at her book tour stops, or read in the memoir, or even knew going back to the beginning of her time in the public spotlight. Those looking for much new intimate insight on her life or access into her head – especially in or now out of the White House – will find little to grasp onto.
As for those looking for thoughts or opinions on current affairs, the contentious politics of the day or the elephant in the room – or, to quote another famous Chicago native, the horse loose in the hospital – you’re better off trying to find a MAGA hat in one of the crowd shots from the tour. Those eight years of life in the scorching and increasingly polarized political eye, as well as the aftermath – of leaving the White House in a world that’s far different than when they first entered – are given spotty and surface-level discussion at most, leaving a lot of holes and likely more questions than answers.
What was it like living in the middle of such a polarized political battlefield? What was it like leaving the White House to a world seemingly so different, so disillusioned, to the one from when you entered? Or, for something easier, simply what’s daily life like for such a figure, then and now? "Becoming" mostly leaps from 2008 to the book tour of yesteryear, hand-waving away about a decade-long gap, leaving ample material mostly untouched and leaving audiences with a doc that feels more for 2010 than 2020, something nice but rarely necessary.
Hallgren, a first-time feature director but seasoned political doc cinematographer ("Trapped," "Citizen Koch"), gets her subject’s fortified guard to come down a few times, talking briefly about the racism they endured on the campaign trail or the discomfort of having servants in the slave-built White House, wearing suits and mostly comprised of people of color. In one all-too-brief moment with some students, Hallgren even steals an all-too-brief glimpse at her subject’s calmly-expressed political frustration – directed not at a rival party but instead their own, calling their failure to show up at the polls in 2016 and in the smaller elections throughout the Obama presidency a "slap in the face."
The most telling material in "Becoming," though, comes when Hallgren captures how imprisoning living during history can be – literally in the case of a story about having to break out of the White House to watch celebrations about the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision or merely a brief moment where Michelle Obama points out that the blinds must be down for a meal with her family for security reasons. Earlier in the doc, she also recalls her husband’s early presidential campaign days, how she wanted to be herself and be open and honest, but after some quotes were turned into political ammo – or, in one particularly laughable case, a fist bump was turned into a "terrorist fist jab" – she had to learn to stick to the script to avoid giving the ruthless public microscope (one already set on searing high-resolution for women, much less those of color) as little to probe and prod as possible.
It’s a revealing note – less so about the doc’s star than about the doc itself, almost an explanation for why "Becoming" is unsurprisingly empowering but surprisingly apolitical, high on inspiration but low on new or personal insights on such unique lives in such unique times. The former First Lady claims that the tour and the doc now represents "totally me, unplugged, for the first time," but if "Becoming" is any evidence, the cord’s still clearly wound pretty tight and constraining. The result is a doc more brand-consciously savvy than behind the scenes, a hagiography – like "The Last Dance" – more invested in carefully replaying the highlights than cutting into any topic or experience too deeply.
And like "The Last Dance," when the highlights are this high-inducing, this feel-good and enjoyable and aspirational, who can blame them for sticking to the hits? Sure, it’s hard to not want more from 90 minutes with one of the 21st century’s most recognizable and influential political figures than a documentary that talks to her personal stylist before it mentions the word "Trump" – but confrontation has rarely been in the Obama political playbook. (After all, as Michelle Obama notes, "our existence was a provocation" on its own; for them, as with many black Americans, there's never been an alternative to going high.)
"Becoming" continues that approach, staying safe and pushing polished inspiration to the fore. It's warm and comfortable – though without much personal or political to add, the platitudes and the entire project comes off a little weightless. You’d think its subjects/producers would know better than anyone that hope can come up short without substance too.
"Becoming": ** out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.