30 minutes. That’s how long Michelle Obama cried on the plane leaving the White House, she tells to Oprah Winfrey and thousands of adoring supporters.
A cathartic end to eight years of service directly in the public eye. Eight years of not only being the right-hand woman to the first Black President of the United States but also paving a firm path for herself. Eight years of being the definition of poise when an overwhelming part of the country went to bed dreaming of her and her family’s downfall.
From humble beginnings on the southside of Chicago to joining the world’s stage as a beacon of hope for women of all backgrounds, Michelle Obama’s brand of Black Girl Magic brought a shining light to a country that still struggles with its history of racial oppression. She decided to tell her story two years after leaving the White House in her memoir Becoming, which was the highest-selling book that year. The documentary of the same name follows the former First Lady on her 34-city book tour, exploring her early years up until today.
At the beginning of the documentary, Michelle’s chilling in the backseat of her escort car, listening to some upbeat Kirk Franklin on her way to her first meeting. As God Like You plays through the opening sequence, It’s accompanied by clips of both inauguration day celebrations, making sure she’s the center of attention. It’s reminiscent of a pop singer’s documentary, the quick cuts of iconic moments in their lives as they travel to create yet another one. It’s the calm before the action. She’s relaxed, but laser-focused. It’s satisfying to see Michelle comfortable in a way most have not during all her years at the White House. From the Kirk Franklin bumping in the car to Frank Ocean’s Crack Rock playing in the background throughout the film, Michelle shows the world how eclectic here tastes are.
As the first Black woman to become First Lady, she talks about how she had to give up her more down-to-Earth demeanour and live life very scripted to keep up the image of a picture-perfect Presidential family. The Obamas faced every Black stereotype talking heads at Fox News could throw at them; tone too angry, platform too aggressive, clothes too loud, fistbumps and shoulder brushes too unprofessional. But with a cooler head and even cooler credentials, Michelle never let the opposition see her or her family sweat. However, sitting in the waiting room for the first leg of her book tour in Chicago, she allows her natural energy flow. She’s making faces at the camera, telling her mom not to touch the cake replica of her book with her. She’s rubbing the shoulders of Melissa Winters, her Chief of Staff that’s been there from the beginning, giving her the go-ahead to “cry your eyes out, because [she] can’t do that right now.”
Becoming does a beautiful job of showing a more personal side of Michelle Obama. We learn about her family, her insecurities, her motivation to succeed, and her impact on the faces of eager women from high school age to senior citizen level. A tearful middle-aged Black woman thanks her at the book signing for her story about her daughters, Sasha and Malia, being an inspiration for mothers who suffer from postpartum depression. You see her responding to questions asked by bright-eyed young black girls carving their own paths in the same city that she did decades before. One of the girls asks her how she persevered through invisibility. Michelle credits her parents for always giving her a voice to say what was on her mind at the table, followed by one of the most poignant lines in the documentary: “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen.”
What was very interesting about this documentary that is rare to see is that it takes a detour from the woman of the hour to showcase the lives of two young women she’s inspired as they continued on their high school journeys. A black girl and Latina girls, two women of colour that Michelle Obama was gracious enough to share her spotlight with. It brings her story full circle, showing her lifting up the next generation of strong female leaders.
While the majority of the documentary felt smooth, uplifting and genuine, it was not without its flaws. Closer to the end of the film, Michelle laments, putting in all this campaign work for years only to see certain parts of the black community not vote. This part of the film feels overly judgemental and doesn’t provide many nuances to the stories behind black people who were well within their right not to vote. It would have been nice to address the issue of voter suppression in overwhelmingly conservative states, as well as Black Americans. They feel like the democratic party takes their votes for granted and, in doing so, doesn’t do enough to make sure their needs are fully met term after term. It would’ve been interesting to explore the role of white liberalism in leading to the jaded black voter, but seeing as how Michelle
Campaigned for Hilary Clinton during her presidential run, that was probably never going to happen.
Becoming Michelle was an exciting look into the life of one of the most iconic Black women in history. Her story is truly something to be celebrated, and this documentary does a great job of doing that. This was a very different First Lady story. One would be hard-pressed to find a documentary about a prominent political figure that positively featured not only a momentous occasion within the LGBTQ+ community in the Marriage Equality Act of 2015 but also giving the microphone to a gender non-conforming individual to publicly speak their truth in front of thousands of Americans, many of which still refuse to accept gender identities not assigned at birth. Michelle Obama became who she is today by uplifting everyone around her. Hopefully, someone can watch this documentary and feel her hand lifting them up to greater heights, as well.