Every week, new original films debut on Netflix, Hulu, and other digital services, often films with modest budgets and limited fanfare. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.
The premise: Not quite two years after leaving the White House, former first lady Michelle Obama embarked on a tour to promote her book Becoming and meet with young women across the country — and documentary cameras followed.
What it’s about: The book version of Becoming is part memoir, part inspirational call to readers to “find your voice.” The new documentary, directed by Nadia Hallgren, follows in its footsteps. The film chronicles Michelle Obama’s experiences after her husband’s presidency ended, in her own words, but has grander aims than just giving us a glimpse into one woman’s life. It encourages audiences to find their own passion and follow it, too.
It does that by occasionally moving its focus away from Obama (and her famous husband, who appears only briefly) and onto some of the women and girls she encountered during her Becoming book tour. Though much of the tour involved being interviewed on arena stages by famous people (Reese Witherspoon, Stephen Colbert, Gayle King), Obama also met with small groups, many comprised of high school girls, to talk about their lives and their futures. The film breaks away from Obama to follow several of them. And Obama makes her aim obvious: She is interested in highlighting and inspiring future leaders.
But the film’s big draw is Obama herself — whose brother jovially laments, halfway through, how unfair it is when your sister is “the most popular woman in the world” — and so Becoming spends plenty of time on her now-familiar story of growing up in a middle-class family on Chicago’s South Side, trying to find her way as a college student and then a young lawyer, and eventually meeting Barack Obama.
Working from interviews as well as excerpts from the memoir, Obama speaks candidly about the ways she put herself aside for her husband’s career and what that meant for their partnership. She discusses going to marriage counseling, feeling the sting of bad-faith criticisms of things she said on the national stage, and the pressure on her family of having to be “perfect,” as America’s first family and the family of its first black president.
And she speaks without hedging about how important it is for the country to not delude itself, the way some spoke about America being in a “post-racial era” following her husband’s election. We can’t pull together if we aren’t honest about who we are, she says. It’s hardly the first time anyone’s delivered that message, but here it’s clear, direct, and piercing.
There are, of course, limits to a documentary like this. It’s not a puff piece, but it also doesn’t contain any big revelations. Since it was produced as part of the Netflix programming slate overseen by the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground (which also made the Oscar-winning American Factory and the Sundance audience award winner Crip Camp), it carries no pretense of objectivity — a dubious concept anyhow in documentary filmmaking. And even though the film largely steers clear from very specific political statements, it’s impossible (and not desirable) for it to be apolitical, which will be reason enough for some to dismiss it.
Obama does share intimate details of her life, but years of being a highly scrutinized public figure have polished her to a sheen; these are carefully chosen details, thought out and planned. Even in her more unguarded moments — spending time with family, backstage at an arena full of people who’ve come to hear her speak — she’s still visibly aware that there’s a camera nearby, recording everything she says and does.
But that doesn’t detract from her charisma or the authority she commands. Becoming’s most inspirational moments come when we see Obama’s willingness to admit that she’s struggled to find who she is, and, in turn, when we hear her urge others toward fearlessly doing the same.
Critical reception: Becoming has garnered mostly favorable reviews from critics. At the Hollywood Reporter, Dan Fienberg writes, “Without being revelatory, the documentary shows the events that made her, points to the things that inspire her and leaves viewers hanging as to where we’re likely to see Michelle Obama next — or if that’s even the question we’re supposed to ask.”
Where to watch it: Becoming is streaming on Netflix.