The former first lady’s new documentary takes us behind the scenes on the Becoming tour. And, although the film covers familiar ground, Stylist’s Jazmin Kopotsha says the significance of Michelle Obama’s legacy of hope, strength, and empowerment isn’t lost.
It’s hard to pinpoint when, where and how the former First Lady of the United States of America turned the corner from being a political powerhouse to global superstar, but it happened.
Michelle Obama now orbits our world as one of The Greats. The mention of her name swells hearts with pride, hope, and anticipation. Adoring fans fall into puddles of tears at the sight of her. Tour tickets sold out in minutes, her memoir Becoming was an unquestioned best-seller and there’s no doubt the new accompanying Netflix documentary will be one of the most-watched on the streaming platform, too.
“Everyone in the world knows who my sister is,” Craig Robinson, Obama’s brother, muses during the film. It’s a strange concept to get his, your, our, heads around. There’s not a single person in the world who can’t tell you something about her. For the past 12 years, we’ve had Obama’s life at our fingertips. We’ve been able to search the internet for her family history, dredge up old interviews and digitally reintroduce ourselves to one of the most powerful women on the planet without much care, thought or effort.
We’re swiftly reminded of the times media publications across the world attacked her looks, her purpose and her husband. Throughout campaigns, elections, and everything else that came with her title, the cliché of ‘angry black woman’ was relentlessly attached to her, the most visible black woman in the world.
In the documentary, headlines and caricatures flash across the screen as Obama reflects on the animosity that chipped away at her being. She explains how she was eventually forced to stop speaking “off the cuff.” Instead, she began planning speeches and making the sort of sartorial choices that intentionally prompted conversation on her terms.
Obama explains how she succumbed to the pressure of perfection that came not only as the first lady, but as the first black first lady. And, more tellingly, how that came to impact her family’s lives.
However, the enduring line that has weathered the pop culture tides much more successfully than trashy headlines is Obama’s motto of “when they go low, we go high.” And, wow, what an experience it has been to watch her soar.
In Becoming, we follow Obama on a behind-the-scenes journey through the 2018-2019 book tour that took her across American and Europe, landing for a couple of pitstops at London’s O2 Arena. She describes her book tour as an opportunity to reflect, although I’m sure many fans will have approached her string of high-profile public appearances as an opportunity to learn.
Much like the book, Netflix’s Becoming – produced by the Obama’s Higher Ground production company – manages to be both invitingly warm and expertly polished.
Backstage shots of team briefings, meticulous wardrobe selection and well-rehearsed responses to the slew of A-List interviewers (Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Stephen Colbert, etc) are matched with tender advice shared with young women of colour at schools, a few seconds taken to dance to a Drake song, and brief moments of intimacy between Michelle and Barack, her mother, and her friends backstage.
There’s sincerity beneath the formality – it’s one of the winning attributes that won hearts the world over all those years ago. And while we’re left on the other side of the documentary wanting to know even more about Obama’s life, thoughts, hopes, fears and intentions (if you have read the book or managed to make it to one of her live interviews, much of the material will cover familiar ground), the gravity of the film’s existence isn’t lost at all.
There’s so much strength to unpick from Obama’s unwavering influence, and it’s a joy to realise time and time again. A personal memoir that was released almost two years ago found momentum and longevity. This documentary is just another marker in her trajectory – years after leaving the White House, no less – and signals just how important she will continue to be to future generations.
Though her symbolic (and literal) prominence as a matriarch of black womanhood has already defined such a huge part of recent history, it’s the resonance of her words that make many of us hope for brighter futures. Becoming was never meant to round off Obama’s time in the spotlight; it’s here to guide us all into a new phase of growth and empowerment under her encouragement. And it’s hard to identify something as vital, moving or necessary that our forever first lady could give us.
Becoming is available to stream on Netflix from 6 May
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