“I am from the South Side of Chicago. That tells you as much about me as you need to know.” – Michelle Obama, in the Netflix documentary “Becoming.”
Given the Higher Ground production company owned by Barack and Michelle Obama has a lucrative deal with Netflix, you can probably guess which streaming service is running a doc about Michelle’s book tour titled “Becoming,” and you won’t be surprised to learn it’s an immensely flattering portrait of the former First Lady.
Then again, given Michelle Obama is one of the most admirable, impressive, decent and flat-out cool role models of her generation, only a fool or a true hater would expect or want a hit job. (I’m not even sure what factual ammunition could be used to put together a hypothetical slam piece.) So, yes, “Becoming” is a full-length documentary painting Michelle in the loveliest of lights, as we follow along with her on the book tour and revisit her backstory through archival footage, old photos and Michelle’s on-camera reminiscences.
As someone who has gone on a couple of mini-book tours in which crowds of literally dozens, that’s right, dozens of people turned out to hear a few stories and (we always hoped) buy a book or two, I can say with great authority a Michelle Obama book tour resembles a “regular” author’s book tour in the same way an Elton John concert at Wrigley Field resembles an Elton John cover band show at Durty Nellie’s in Palatine. With celebrity interviewers and FOMs (Friends of Michelle) such as Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Gayle King, Stephen Colbert and Robin Roberts joining Obama onstage, she filled venues such as The Forum in Los Angeles, the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the Pepsi Center Arena in Denver and, of course, the United Center, where the documentary kicks off, with Oprah Winfrey, another fairly well-known figure with deep Chicago ties, doing the questioning. We see Michelle and her close associates in a prayer circle backstage, as Oprah bellows: “She is your hometown girl from the South Side of Chicago, welcome Michelle Obama!” (The welcome from the crowd really does sound like the thunderous applause that greets rock stars when they take the stage.)
Oprah asks Michelle how she felt when the Obamas left the White House after eight years: “When you got on the helicopter, did you think, Free at last, free at last …?” Michelle replies with an anecdote about the last night the family spent in the White House, when daughters Sasha and Malia had one last sleepover with friends. (Too great, right?) In the morning, the girls were still sleeping when Michelle had to rouse them up, saying, “Wake up, the Trumps are coming!”
On a more serious note, Michelle shares that she sobbed upon leaving the White House, as “the release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly. [As first lady,] every gesture you make, every blink of an eye, is analyzed. Your life isn’t yours anymore.”
In quieter, offstage moments, Michelle gets together with her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, and her brother, Craig Robinson, and shares memories as she flips through photo albums. She notes how in kindergarten, the class photo reflected the racial diversity of her neighborhood, while the eighth-grade class was all black because of white flight to the suburbs. At Princeton, Michelle was one of just a handful of minority students. “One of my roommates moved out because her mother was horrified I was black,” she says. “She felt her daughter was in danger.”
For every sobering note, “Becoming” has a dozen uplifting moments, e.g., when Michelle meets with young women just starting out on their journeys, or when fans are moved to shaking and tears when meeting her, and she displays such grace and kindness with them. Then there’s the cameo by her husband, who is introduced by Valerie Jarrett and walks onstage with a bouquet of flowers and says, “This is like when Jay-Z comes out during the Beyonce concert,” and even does a little corny Dad-level rapping as Michelle says, “Oh, good Lord.”
On the last stop of the 34-city tour, Michelle closes with words to live by: “This country is good, people are good, people are decent. … I remain hopeful people want better, if not for themselves, then for the nation.”