Becoming more than the sum of your parts

Michelle Obama in Becoming. (Photo © Netflix)

Charismatic former first lady Michelle Obama is in her element in Becoming, a Netflix documentary that sheds light on her experiences after her husband's presidency ended, offering glimpses into private moments of pride, fear and frustration.

This she does in her own narrative, but with grander goals than just giving the audience a peek into her life as a political spouse to America's first black president. She is also a confident modern-day woman with dreams and aspirations of her own.

While the book format of Becoming is part memoir, part inspirational shout-out to readers to "find their voice", this documentary, directed by Nadia Hallgren, follows in its footsteps.

Embarking on a 34-city book tour for her 2018 memoir, she walks the audience through selective biographical encounters and star-studded guest appearances coupled with a healthy measure of motivational nurturing she shares with people of colour. It highlights the importance of education and holistic ownership of personal narratives to make this documentary a revelation about the need to be true to oneself.

Obama, who credits her family for giving her the nudge to strive for academic excellence, also speaks frankly about personal issues she had to struggle with along the way.

Top of which was having to put her own aspirations on the back burner for her husband's career, and what that meant for their union as a couple -- the marriage counselling they attended to put their life on track and the public reproof she had to deal with for what she had said on national stage.

What probably was the toughest on her was the pressure of having to be "perfect", as America's first family and that of its first black president. The former first lady takes immense care and pride in enumerating the roles she undertook preparing her for adult life -- from being a dutiful daughter to a star high-school student, who always aimed high no matter the obstacles, to a dedicated, hard-working Princeton University undergraduate, who reached this milestone despite a student counsellor telling her otherwise.

Obama, whose brother and mother are also featured in this movie, became a Harvard Law School graduate and then launched her career as a successful lawyer, while carrying out the duties of a loving wife and mother to daughters Sasha and Malia. For a person who professes to never have liked politics, Obama did a splendid job supporting her husband through his presidential campaigning, and later conducting her duties as first lady.

This documentary's most inspirational moments arrive when we watch Obama's willingness to confess that she has struggled to find who she is, and hear her encourage others to fearlessly do the same.

Having said that, it must be noted that while the book describes emotionally-charged personal stories about Obama's existential struggles in young adulthood and later grief of a miscarriage, the movie, which hits all the notes of a celebrity selecting to share her life with the public, exudes more of a standard side of her life. Familiar yet more carefree than how she was as first lady, where the need to stay on script was part and parcel of her existence.

As the documentary cameras follow her everywhere from interviews on arena stages by famous people such as Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Stephen Colbert and Gayle King, where she makes a speech in front of thousands of people feel like chit chat with friends, to her carefully staged meetings with high school girls, the elderly and others, one thing about Obama becomes obvious, and that is she has a knack for connecting with people at an emotional level which makes them feel special and wanted.

As she wears an all-white ensemble at a speaking engagement in a packed arena in Chicago, it is Obama's innate ability to charm with her candidness and flair for sharing anecdotal encounters in a matter-of-fact manner that makes her endearing and reveals a person who wears her heart on her sleeve.

Becoming shows the events that made Obama the woman she is today, which helps it avoid being a puff piece, but concurrently doesn't deliver any big revelations.

Moreover, years of being under the public eye have polished her to a sheen, for there are carefully picked details throughout this documentary which are put in place to deliver a particular emotion.

So why watch Becoming? For the simple reason that her life story resounds with hope for a better tomorrow, which starts by telling one's story.

  • Becoming
  • Starring Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Adrian K. Collins
  • Directed by Nadia Hallgren
  • Now streaming on Netflix