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‘Becoming’ offers a carefully considered peek behind the curtain of a second Camelot

The Netflix documentary follows former first lady Michelle Obama on her book tour

In 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy opened the doors of the White House for a televised tour of The People’s House. The move was one of many — deliberate, planned, carefully considered — that came to define the public-facing role of first lady.

Part of what makes Kennedy’s legacy so enduring and beguiling is the way she worked to create a vision of optimism and idealism for the country to the point that the Kennedy family’s time in the White House became defined as “Camelot.” But what makes the idea of Camelot so interesting is what it concealed, even before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. There was an effortlessness to the iconography of the Kennedys that belied enormous personal challenges: President Kennedy was beset with horrific back pain for much of his adult life, including during his time in the White House. Jackie Kennedy endured five difficult pregnancies, one which resulted in a stillbirth, and two that ended with miscarriages. Camelot offered a comforting, hopeful symbolism in the face of a rapidly shifting, scary world, and Jackie Kennedy approached providing it as a duty.

I thought about that tension between the public euphoria and private miseries of the Kennedys as I watched Becoming, the Netflix documentary that begins streaming Wednesday about first lady Michelle Obama and her road to becoming the first black woman to occupy the role. Becoming, like Obama’s memoir of the same name, is a work of image crafting, a bridge between the staid and gendered strictures of being first lady, and the freedom of the post-presidency for a woman who remains widely admired.

In Becoming, which Barack and Michelle Obama produced through their media company, Higher Ground, director Nadia Hallgren strikes a balance between reverential and real. She follows Obama, 56, through a 34-city book tour while offering a filmic biography of the woman who was born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson.

Director Nadia Hallgren (left) and Michelle Obama (right) in Becoming.

Isaac Palmisano

Much of Becoming plays like a concert film, with Obama playing the role of sought-after pop star, with shots that have come to define tropes of the genre: screaming crowds, lots of conversations in the back seats of cars as the star is whisked from one event to the next, an encounter with a purple-haired woman so bowled over by the prospect of meeting Obama in a book-signing line that she immediately begins crying.

Becoming is akin to Beyoncé’s 2013 HBO documentary, Life Is But a Dream, in that it offers up a veneer of intimacy without introducing much new information. Part of that is because coverage of Obama’s book tour for Becoming was so comprehensive that Hallgren gets repeatedly scooped as she’s filming Obama’s candid moments.

Obama’s transition from first lady to post-presidency celebrity is one we’ve witnessed in real time, as her life as a private citizen has been documented with paparazzi shots. Obama, never a shrinking violet, has become more daring in the way she presents herself — the yellow dress and Balenciaga thigh-high boots she wore for a Becoming tour event spring to mind.

“As first lady, I was slowly watching myself being exposed to the world,” Obama said. “I had to become more strategic in how I presented myself because it had the potential of defining me for the rest of my life. Fashion, for a woman, still predominates how people view you. And that’s not fair, that’s not right, but it’s true. That’s when fashion isn’t just fashion. It’s how you turn it into your tool rather than being a victim of it.”

Obama and Kennedy feel similar in a way that goes beyond their ability to function as attractive hostesses and clotheshorses because of the rare moments when we’re offered a peek behind the curtain, which is exactly what Kennedy’s 1962 tour of the White House provided. To be a first lady is to join a sisterhood of sublimated emotions and to be hyperaware of the pressures and expectations of the role. That’s why the most memorable portion of Becoming comes when Obama discusses the events leading up to and immediately following the Trump inauguration in January 2017. The Obamas hosted a final sleepover for daughters Sasha and Malia’s friends, and the morning of the inauguration was full of tearful goodbyes to the White House staff. Meanwhile, Obama was trying to keep it together.

Former first lady Michelle Obama (right) in Becoming.

White House / Public Domain

“If I walk out there crying, they’re going to swear I’m crying for a different reason,” she explained to Oprah Winfrey, who interviewed her in Chicago. “So I’m like, ‘We have got to get it together.’ So it was a very emotional day. But then we got on Air Force One and when we got on the plane I think I sobbed for 30 minutes and I think it was just the release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.”

Becoming more or less offers Obama fanservice, which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing — no one is expecting the Obamas to give the Seymour Hersh treatment to themselves. But it’s most interesting in the rare moments when Obama speaks candidly about topics that had been verboten, or at least strongly discouraged unless first vetted by an army of communications and political consultants. Obama may have taken on the role of figurehead of hope reluctantly, but once there, she, like Kennedy, was invested in it.

It helps to explain the disappointment Obama exudes when she talks about the political roadblocks her husband faced as president when repeatedly faced with an intransigent Congress.

“Every midterm. Every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up,” Obama said. “After all that work, they just couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.”

In small ways, Obama is able to say what Kennedy could not. She articulates the unique crucible of being chosen, then hamstrung, then betrayed. In December 2016, as she was promoting her book, Obama told CBS This Morning, “Now we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”

Beyond the nostalgic symbolism documented in Becoming, a question lurks: When hope is extinguished, what exactly was everything for?

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.