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Documentary review: “Becoming”

ss_becoming2
Courtesy of Netflix
2.5stars
Director: Nadia Hallgren
Release date: May 6, 2020

Many documentaries profiling celebrities can venture too close to worshipful hagiography, but the Michelle Obama doc “Becoming” is the first I’ve seen that literally starts with a worship song.

And yes, Kirk Franklin may be singing the praises of the Christian God in his song “A God Like You,” but when he sings “Everybody wanna be like you, they want power and praise like you but see…there’s no one like you” over footage of Obama greeting enraptured fans, it’s pretty clear that director Nadia Hallgren belongs firmly to the church of Michelle.

That worshipful tone throughout “Becoming” is at least partially deserved, I think. In “Becoming,” Obama comes across as a captivating storyteller, gracious interview subject and dedicated public servant working to find new ways to touch the lives of others after leaving the White House.

But, as in many of these celebrity docs, the worshipful tone prevents Hallgren from doing anything approaching hard journalism. As candid as Obama can be at times, she is also a bit reserved, and Hallgren isn’t interested in probing for deep or uncomfortable truths or in interviewing anybody who doesn’t think Obama is the second coming of Jesus Christ.

This makes for some frustratingly one-sided filmmaking at times, and it’s hard not to feel that the often-good “Becoming” could have been even better if Hallgren had dug a little deeper.

ss_becoming1
Courtesy of Netflix

The throughline of “Becoming” is Obama’s 34-stop book tour across the country following the publishing of her memoir (also titled “Becoming”) in 2018, and the bulk of footage is taken from the community conversations she held during the tour.

The rotating lineup of celebrity moderators for these conversations (Oprah Winfrey! Stephen Colbert! Reese Witherspoon!)  is perhaps a bit more interesting than the actual content, but Obama proves herself a charismatic storyteller throughout.

She has a few good yarns about her time in the White House – from recounting the emotional whiplash of mourning the Charleston church shooting on the same day as celebrating the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage to discussing the difficulty of raising her two daughters as independent black women in an environment where they were served by other people of color.

None of these stories will be especially surprising to anyone who has read “Becoming” or has a basic familiarity with Obama and her husband. But the tellings are captivating enough to keep the film moving through its relatively spry hour-and-a-half runtime, and Obama really comes alive in the off-stage interactions she has with fans, particularly groups of high school students from across the country. The advice she gives is solid, and her intent focus on every person she interacts with is admirable.

Becoming
Courtesy of Netflix

This is not a film, as Obama jokes at one point, “about how the sausage gets made.” The insights Hallgren gets – from Obama and the relatively sparse lineup of other talking heads- are only surface-deep. And anyone hoping to get Obama’s hot take on how politics have changed since her husband left office four years ago will probably be sorely disappointed.

“Becoming” (rated PG for some thematic elements and brief language) isn’t an especially challenging film – not for its subject or for its audience. But it is often a good one – a sweet little hug of a movie with a compelling story of a powerful woman grappling with her own legacy and future.

It may not be deep or challenging enough to convert any new believers to the church of Michelle, but those who are already believers – and really who isn’t at this point? – should find it emotionally resonant and more than a little inspiring – just like the first lady herself.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

 

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Netflix

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