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Halfway through Becoming, the Netflix documentary based in part on Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir, Obama visits her childhood home and plays the opening chords of “Linus and Lucy” on the piano. Her mother Marian beams from the doorway, saying, “She always played everything over and over and over again, like it had to be perfect.” It may well be the most incisive moment of the film, for it exposes if not the defining project of Obama’s life, then certainly the compass to her power. (Obama herself is not a person I’m entirely convinced we are ever offered, nor are we entitled to, access.)
This, in some ways, is no profound revelation. The film, the feature directorial debut from cinematographer Nadia Hallgren, charts Obama’s history as a proud overachiever: the first Black First Lady graduated from Princeton, earned a law degree from Harvard, and mentored her future husband, Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States, at the law firm where they met. In all her triumphs, she embodies something inspiring, to be sure, but more urgently something divinely recognizable for legions of girls and women of color. They have been counseled by their elders, wizened by heartbreak, to be twice as good as everyone else — so the oft-repeated saying goes. It requires nothing less to get the crumbs of the American Dream.
It’s hard to resist the romance of representation, particularly for Black women, who have long been made invisible, their experiences rendered illegible. And if for no other reason, the mere image of Michelle Obama is formidable. Hers is a portrait that Black women have been starved for, and she knows this well. The film follows Obama on her book tour, where she (and the audience) are confronted with the global effects of that portrait. There are excited girls and women of all races, but the Black and Brown ones are especially emphasized, gazing at her lovingly through tears and shaky breath, all of them touched by her poise, glamour, and essential relatability.
It was not always thus, of course. Even before she made it into the White House, Obama was plagued by racist attacks that framed her as an “angry Black woman” and nursed resentments over such egregious offenses as daring to reveal her arms. Images are seductive, a political force all their own. In fact, the Obamas have made an art of it. During Barack’s administration, they cultivated a down-to-earth, hands-on, accessible first family model. This could never protect them from anyone who would only ever see a Black family, but between the openhearted normalcy and glamour they projected, they won over the world.
The Obamas have, at turns explicitly and implicitly, almost always represented the more traditional avenue for upward mobility. They are a success story for operating within the confines of America’s institutions, and to look at them, among many complicated things, is to be satisfied that the system need not be dismantled, merely navigated. Barack Obama’s policies simply do not reflect the right-wing anxieties (either then or now) that Black Americans unduly benefited from his presidency. He even occasionally resorted to conservative talking points around “personal responsibility” when called upon to address the Black community directly. Michelle too has been accused of similar finger-wagging, both in her book and in the film. She blames “our folks” for failing to show up in the 2016 election, costing Hillary Clinton the victory. It is perhaps reasonable to interpret that this means “Black people”; she is surrounded by Black teenagers at the time. But she elaborates in the next scene: “The people who didn’t vote at all, the young people, the women … it wasn’t just in this election … every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up.”
Michelle Obama has and likely always will be held to impossible standards, relentlessly dissected. She admits as much early in the film: “It’s hard to wake up every day and maintain that level of perfection that was absolutely required of me and Barack as the first Black President and First Lady.” Their portrait of perfection might still be poetry, if today it did not cast back on how imperfect it is possible to be, and expose a central injustice that cannot be undone by education and hard work.
Becoming is available to stream on Netflix.