In case the past few years of the Trump Administration fogged your memory, allow Netflix to remind you: Former First Lady Michelle Obama can dance. You remember when you read her 2018 memoir Becoming, which sold more than 10 million copies and spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list. In the book, she makes frequent mention of her days practicing piano with her mother’s aunt Robbie and listening to her family’s jazz records in their home on the South Side of Chicago. Reading these stories is touching, often amusing, but it’s another thing entirely to actually watch her wiggle in the backseat to Kirk Franklin’s “A God Like You” or groove to “Flip The Switch” in her dressing room. That’s what Netflix’s Becoming gives you: a reminder of how personable, how real this woman is—and how much she’s evolved from the White House figure we remember.
Some viewers will sit down to watch the documentary, which chronicles Obama’s 34-city tour following the publication of Becoming, and hope for a bombshell interview, some scandalous nugget to take away. But while Obama has no problem speaking her mind—and her stance on the Trumps is obvious to anyone paying attention—the former First Lady is not about to let politics wrestle her own story out of her hands. This isn’t about them. This is about her. If that disappoints you, maybe you should ask yourself why.
Becoming as a memoir is a triumph, a tale of Obama finding her footing as a young black girl in Chicago, proving herself at Princeton, lying awake beside her future husband as he ponders income inequality, and eventually navigating the minefield of the White House. Becoming as a memoir is the real story. But Becoming as a documentary is a companion piece, a harmony to accompany the melody. It’s not revelatory, but it gives you moments you won’t find in the book, and anyone who loves Obama will savor each moment like a long-awaited reunion.
We watch her saunter onstage in all white, marching straight into the arms of Oprah Winfrey. We see her personalized interactions with old people, young people, black students, Native American students, book clubs and church groups. We meet her chief of staff, her stylist, her mother and brother. We hear her talk about the “heat” coming through the phone when a young Barack Obama first called her. She is so charismatic, so candid, her sincerity almost makes you blush.
Her memoir was a chance to process the more distant past. The book tour, she says, is a time “to figure out what just happened to me.” She’s still processing her own life. It’s not clear if Obama herself knows the full truth yet.
So, no, she doesn’t call out Trump or his wife directly. (Though she does offer a hysterical anecdote about the last sleepover her daughters Malia and Sasha had at the White House, and how she had to get them out quickly the next morning: “Wake up, the Trumps are coming!”) But Obama doesn’t need to mention the Trumps. Her whole message is that your life speaks for itself. Your story is your stance. And she never once tiptoes around the roadblocks.
As she weaves from city to city, book signing to book signing, high school to high school, and photo album to photo album, she shares with audiences and the camera all the ways her identity has shaped her story:
- “Our dinner table was the first table where I felt like I belonged. And then you go out into the world expecting the same thing,” she says.
- “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen,” she says.
- “I am coming down from the mountaintop to tell every person that is poor and working-class and has been told, regardless of the color of your skin, that you don’t belong, don’t listen to them,” she says.
- “I am the former First Lady of the United States and also a descendant of slaves. It’s important to keep that truth right there,” she says.
These aren’t platitudes. They are declarations of war, a war Obama was on the frontlines of long before she walked the front steps of the White House for the first time. She knows her very existence as a former First Lady is threatening. She knows we do not live in a post-racial society. So her weapon of choice is storytelling, and if you spend even five minutes watching the faces of the men and women who come to her book signings, you realize it’s a powerful one to wield.
Some critics have called the documentary “bland” or have criticized the degree of influence Obama had over its creation. In most instances, I would agree. It would certainly be more journalistically “pure” to bring in unbiased reporters to pick apart her tale and tell it themselves, offering rare glimpses of breakdowns or behind-the-scenes arguments. But there’s no such thing as an unbiased view of Obama. Everyone in the country has thoughts. And, for this particular project, there’s a power in letting the former First Lady steer its direction.
For all the years her critics were allowed to call her “an angry black woman” and an extension of her husband, we get to see Obama herself rebut those claims. She insists she had to set herself up at a place where she “was going to be [her husband’s] equal.” Obama tells you her truth, what it was like to be dissected so viciously in public. She lets her guard down on camera—but only so much. She won’t let you too close, and that’s okay. She’s given us her life. She’s given us her message. She should hold a few things closer to the chest.
Some will want to watch a documentary that attacks Trump, loudly and proudly. That’s a fair thing to wish for. At the bare minimum, it’d probably be more exciting than Becoming is. But Obama has always been more clever about her battle tactics. She uses stories—her own stories—told her way. She will never allow Trump to steal that narrative. “I wish people didn’t feel badly—because this country is good,” she says. “People are good. People are decent.”
In a rare onscreen appearance, her husband leads his wife through the hallway after one of her stadium-filling tour stops. She’s bent over a bit. She seems tired. He extends his arm around her. “You’re a good storyteller,” he says.
He’s right. We should all be listening. We owe Michelle Obama that much.