Story at a glance
- Former First Lady Michelle Obama did extensive touring to promote her 2018 memoir "Becoming," visiting schools and auditoriums across the country.
- Her new Netflix documentary follows her on that journey both onstage and in the wings and takes a intimate look at her life before the White House.
- "Becoming" touches on personal subjects such as race, motherhood, her early years and her relationship with Barack Obama.
When former First Lady Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” hit stands in 2018, it served as an inspirational call to readers to “find your voice.” Today, her new documentary of the same title dropped on Netflix, offering an unprecedented look into Obama’s personal life. Directed by Nadia Hallgren, the film chronicles her experiences after her husband’s presidency ended, as she speaks to both small groups of students and crowded auditoriums about her experiences in the White House and far before it. Beyond acting as a cinematic memoir, it also aims to inspire young people to find their own passion and follow it despite enduring hardship or resistance.
The documentary focuses largely on Obama’s tour to promote her book, meeting with young women across the country along the way, as well as sitting down for tell-all interviews with famed interviewers such as Stephen Colbert, Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King and Reese Witherspoon. But while the viewer sees plenty of clips from what happened on the stage, it also takes them behind the scenes, following the former first lady in more candid moments before and after the shows. It shows warm moments between Obama and her senior adviser Melissa Winter as well as Secret Service agent Allen Taylor, who share anecdotes from their relationship with Obama for the camera.
Worth noting is that while her husband Barack, the 44th president of the United States, certainly makes an appearance — the documentary is largely about her point of view and her own story. In fact, much of the film centers around her relationship with her family and her experiences growing up on the south side of Chicago, focusing on how her upbringing shaped her values and ambitions.
One clip from the film features a first generation college student who tells Obama that she’s lived in subsidized housing her entire life, adding that she never thought that she would have the opportunity to be sitting next to the former First Lady of the United States. She asked Obama, “How did you as a black woman persevere through invisibility?”
“For me, I’ve never felt invisible,” Obama answered. “I think it’s because my parents made me always feel visible. It came from the simple truth of not what was going on in the world, but what was going on at my dinner table. My mother let us ask anything.”
“We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen. We’re far from it, just time will not allow it. It’s not going to happen with one president or one vote, so you’ve got to find the tools within yourself to feel visible and to be heard and to use your voice,” says Obama.
Obama also touches on her years growing up on the south side of Chicago and the “white flight” she experienced — the racist trend of white families moving further into the suburbs as more black people moved into their neighborhoods. After high school Obama attended the prestigious Princeton University, and recalls her freshman year as being the first time she felt like an outsider, as she was one of only a handful of minority students.
“I learned that one of my roommates moved out because her mother was horrified that I was black. She felt her daughter was in danger,” Obama recalls. “I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Her relationship with Barack
Working from interviews as well as excerpts from the memoir, Obama speaks candidly about meeting Barack Obama and the ways she eventually put her own ambitions aside for her husband’s career, getting candid about subjects such as going to marriage counseling, feeling the sting of criticism as she worked hard to help her husband campaign for the presidency, as well as the pressure on her family of having to be, in her words, “perfect.”
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"Every gesture you make, every blink of an eye is analyzed," says Obama. "You have the world watching every move you make. Your life isn't yours anymore."
In the documentary she reveals to Oprah Winfrey that she held her tears back as she walked away from the United States Capitol building to Marine One after President Donald Trump's inauguration, saying that people were going to say she was crying “for a different reason.” She says that when she finally let the tears flow, it was “the release of trying to do everything perfectly.”
The White House
Obama shares a lot about her experience in the White House, especially her efforts in trying to create a sense of “normalcy” for her two daughters, Sasha and Malia, who both make brief appearances in the film. She tells the story of a visit she had to the White House with Laura Bush, during which she noticed the White House butlers were mainly older African American and Latino men — omnipresent in their tuxedos.
"I didn't want them (Sasha and Malia) growing up thinking grown African American men served them in tuxedos," she says. "The truth was that some of those men were (like) my uncles — they were the Pullman porters and other folks. I didn't want my girls to grow up with that image."
Race continues to be a through-line in the documentary, as Obama details feeling immense pressure to be perfect as wife to the first black president, only to be met with criticism regardless of her actions.
Michelle’s efforts continue today
Though it has been nearly four years since the Obamas left the White House, Michelle continues her work in championing young women and girls, launching the Global Girls Alliance to support education in 2018.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been recording a robocall for Washington's vulnerable residents to outline the availability of free testing and launched a reading program with PBS Kids called "Mondays with Michelle." Last month, she also joined Laura Bush to record a video message thanking health care and front line workers as part of the two-hour Global Citizen television event. On Tuesday, she announced on social media that she and Barack would help deliver a virtual commencement celebration to 3 million high school seniors graduating this month, via YouTube.
Obama’s ongoing work in education and elsewhere also has many wondering if the former First Lady may be tapped to run alongside Joe Biden as vice president in his bid for the upcoming presidential election.
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