Audrey Kupferberg: Becoming | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Becoming

May 22, 2020

Higher Ground Productions, Barack and Michelle Obama’s media production company for distribution through Netflix, has released a new documentary about the 44th First Lady.  It is called Becoming, the same title as her best-selling biographical and philosophical memoir. 

The new documentary spotlights Michelle, her family and staff, and the many fans who travelled to see her during a recent book tour that took her to 34 cities.  At one point, Michelle refers to the tour as “an emotional and sociological dance with people.”  And that it is!  In one brief, rapid-paced sequence after another, Michelle prepares for television interviews with Oprah, Gayle King, and Stephen Colbert.  We come up close to Michelle as she sits with young people of color to discuss their plans and desires, to give them advice and encouragement. 

At one point, she and her mother return to the home on the South Side of Chicago where she grew up, the same house where she and Barack spent an early year of their marriage. She reminisces about her beloved father and his illness, her public-school years, and how the neighborhood changed color during her youth.  In other parts of the documentary, she discusses her years at Princeton.  Throughout, the former First Lady discusses her years in the White House, raising her daughters in that very unreal atmosphere and suffering from the restrictions and confinement that the First Family must endure in that secure environment.

Those of us who have enjoyed reading Becoming, the book, will be familiar with much of the subject matter of Becoming, the film.  Still, for the many fans of Michelle, the documentary is entertaining.  It is nicely shot but edited in an easy-breezy fashion that makes the content appear mismatched and chaotic.  The director and cinematographer, Nadia Hallgren, has more credits as a cameraperson than as a director, and this imbalance shows.

Michelle Obama is an extraordinary woman.  Her energy and her inner-power are apparent, whether she is discussing racism or her choice of fashion designers.  This documentary, which is promoted as an intimate documentary, succeeds in presenting the former First Lady as a presence to be followed, respected, and admired.  How intimate the film ever becomes is debatable. Becoming is not intended to be a critical look at this woman; it is more of an informal appreciation.  At times, I thought the film might be a sales tool to promote the book, but that doesn’t seem necessary, since it has been a runaway best-seller since its release in November 2018. 

So… Becoming provides just one more opportunity to spend time with a smart, charming, really cool woman.  It gives her supporters one more chance to share in her daily work and another occasion to listen to her well-thought-out philosophies about life. 

Throughout, it is wise to remember that Michelle Obama is the producer of this documentary, not just its subject.  She includes what she wants us to know about her.  Netflix did not announce the approaching arrival of this documentary till a week or two before its advent.  Perhaps it was a hurried addition to the Higher Ground company’s productions.  It has that unfinished feel to it.  Nonetheless, Becoming is a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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