It’s been nearly four years since the beloved — and vilified — former first lady of the United States and her husband, Barack Obama, occupied the White House. Throughout her tenure in the East Wing, Michelle Obama was an inspiring if polarizing presence. Netflix’s new documentary, “Becoming,” based on her bestselling memoir of the same name, aims to explore her complicated legacy in her own words.
It is rare for black women, in any industry, to be in a position to discuss their own experiences this way. Black women are often talked about, but less often offered a platform and microphone.
It is rare for black women, in any industry, to be in a position to discuss their own experiences this way.
“Becoming” doesn’t shy away from the compromises and contradictions that have at times made admirers uncomfortable. Many black folks thought the mere presence of the Obamas in the White House was the first (small) reprieve after years of white supremacy there. So then the question became, what were the first family going to do for the black community? It wasn’t as much a query as it was an expectation, derived from past presidencies that implemented laws and attitudes that jeopardized and further marginalized black and brown citizens. (Hillary Clinton’s “super predators” comment immediately springs to mind.)
But that didn’t exactly happen, which made many people nervous. As Katt Williams said of then-President Obama in his 2012 stand-up special, “Kattpacalypse:” "We’ve been waiting for him to say anything that has to do with us.”
The spotlight was also on Michelle Obama, who says in the documentary that she came prepared to try to make change with her husband, drawing on her years of experience as a lawyer in Chicago. Like many black women, she was smart, unflinching and committed to amplifying other black people. But her confidence was a red flag for white America — as well as her husband’s advisers and speechwriters who quickly advised her to become more palatable for a larger demographic (read: white people).
This isn’t an unfamiliar note to receive if you’re a black woman, whose race and gender are often seen as a threat. But Obama says being routinely asked to tone it down knocked her off her game. As she says this, the documentary rolls a clip of her ending what we can assume has been a tempered speech, flashing a forced smile. It crystallizes how easily a 5-foot-11, incredibly intelligent, fully capable black woman can be diminished.
Vulnerability is a recurring theme throughout “Becoming.” It’s used to show how Obama’s plans to galvanize citizens were thwarted and her energy diverted toward poverty awareness, education and health and nutrition — broader concepts that appeal to everyone. But what the film doesn’t subsequently address is how that image upheaval affected the way black people, many of whom advocated for her husband’s presidency, viewed the couple. Instead, later in the film she comments about the small turnout of black voters. The statement just dangles on screen, unchecked.
That comment, and its subtle implied judgment, will understandably ruffle feathers. But “Becoming” is not trying to court controversy. Similar to her book, it aims to inspire young female supporters with the philosophy that “your story is your power.”
Obama offers a snapshot of a life both hopeful and racially tinged. Her dad, Fraser Robinson, was forced to pivot his career due to racial oppression, and Obama says she experienced racism both at a young age and as a student at Harvard and Princeton, where her first roommate switched dorms after learning she was black.
“Becoming” is not trying to court controversy. Similar to her book, it aims to inspire young female supporters with the philosophy that “your story is your power.”
She also talks about what it meant to be black in the White House amid a rash of hate crimes and racist brutality against unarmed black and brown people, including the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Interestingly, the documentary does not include Barack Obama’s remarks following Martin’s death, when he told Americans the teen “could have been my son.” It was one of the few moments Obama publicly addressed the issue. The clip’s omission — like Michelle Obama’s tempered White House persona — seems like an attempt to make the film less targeted to any one race.
Clearly, the former first lady understands the entrenched nature of racism. On camera, she resolves that prejudice is so woven into the fabric of America that it won’t be gone in her lifetime — or even longer. The status quo is a merciless thing.
And so, she deflects. Pivoting toward optimism, she urges young people to share their own stories. We often see her sitting among a group of smiling girls, each hanging on to her every word, or a stadium of women clutching copies of her book. Obama has said and done all that she can, the documentary suggests, and now she’s passing the torch to the next generation of female leaders.
It's unclear whether those who follow her will be able to move the needle farther. But "Becoming" makes evident that in order to see any real change in a (perhaps distant) future, women like her will need an army of supporters. While Obama is obviously not far from the limelight, she seems to now embrace her pitfalls — both personally and professionally — and urges us to do the same as we forge a better destiny on our own.
CORRECTION (May 7, 2020, 12:00 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated Michelle Obama's college. Obama attended Princeton, not Yale.