There’s a scene about halfway through Netflix’s Becoming that I think is, unintentionally perhaps, the key to understanding the entire thing. The film is a behind-the-scenes documentary that follows Michelle Obama’s 34-city tour promoting her memoir of the same name, but it is also an intimate look at her as she adjusts to this new chapter in her life. Or at least, it wants to be an intimate portrait of the former/forever First Lady. The scene I’m talking about comes when the film digs into what life was like for Michelle back when she was on the campaign trail, stumping for Barack Obama before his first term. She was a charismatic and passionate presence — a valuable asset — but she was not the one actually running for election. Nevertheless, outlets like Fox News painted her as an angry Black woman “with a chip on her shoulder” who was not “warm and fuzzy” enough, even going so far as to flat-out speculate about whether she disliked America. Michelle is open about how that distortion of her character impacted her, saying:
“I stopped talking off the cuff. I stopped talking freely. I used teleprompters. I had to be much more scripted than I had ever been before.”
The thing is, that hasn’t changed. Even in this “intimate” documentary, we may see a more personal side of Michelle — listening to music in the car, getting picked on by her brother, celebrating her birthday with staffers — but those moments are few and far between. Most of the footage is pulled from her live events, or from her smaller Q&As with community groups, and in those settings she’s still unerringly on-message. Don’t get me wrong, her message is great. It’s a message of hope. Not, perhaps, the exact same hope that drove her husband into the White House, but the hope that not all was lost when he left it. We can take comfort in the knowledge that there are still good, decent, caring people in this country — the very people who packed theaters in 34 cities to see her. “The future of our nation is up to the next generation,” Michelle says at one point toward the end of the film. “But I know that doesn’t just happen. Young people need encouragement.” Through her memoir, through her tour, through the course of this documentary, Michelle lets herself be that encouragement. She urges people to believe that they are more than statistics, they are stories, and those stories have value. Those stories can connect us, the way her story is connecting us right now.
Still, what I couldn’t escape while watching the documentary was everything Michelle didn’t, or couldn’t, say. The country may be filled with good people, but it’s also filled with hate and prejudice and fear. The next generation may be the future, but the older generations are undermining their chances of success every step of the way. The stark contrast between her messages of hope and the reality that makes us crave such hope was so distracting that I found myself constantly reading between the lines for the Trump-sized hole in the narrative. And maybe that’s the real message of Becoming, the real intimate look at who Michelle Obama is at this moment in time. She still can’t speak freely, or rather — her silence speaks volumes. She may not have been the one we voted into office, but she is no less a symbol of our country’s capacity to change than her husband is — and no less targeted for it. Becoming reminds us how monumental it was that we had the first Black President, first Black First Lady, first Black family in the White House — but it doesn’t have to remind us what came next: a Nazi-courting reality TV host who RIGHT NOW is continuing to spread conspiracy theories about Barack Obama on Twitter. Too many of us voted for him as well.
At one point, Michelle speaks with a group of Native American kids in Arizona, and one young man asks her for advice on how to go about your life surrounded by people wearing MAGA hats. It’s one of the only explicit references to Trump in the entire documentary, and Michelle’s response is to not let this moment in history define us. Be yourself, get your education, live your life. “Barack and I, all through this presidency, through the lies and the stuff they said about us — all we could do was wake up every day and do our jobs, and let our jobs and our lives speak for itself.” It’s true. It’s a fair answer, and in a fair world, it should be enough. But can being yourself ever truly be enough when so many people hate you simply for existing?
I’m not trying to suggest that Michelle owes us a grand solution for all of our problems, but rather to point out the balancing act she’s attempting in this new chapter of her life. She presents a compelling version of herself — she’s funny, down to Earth, hard-working, viciously smart and endlessly compassionate. I just can’t believe that’s all she is; because a woman who can so clearly see the best in us has to also recognize the worst — and probably has a lot to say about it. I admire her restraint, and I’m a little sorry that she’s still carrying those lessons she learned on the campaign trail with her now. She remains a symbol, an inspiration, either by choice or perhaps by necessity, and though she makes that role look natural and real, it isn’t. In her last stop on the book tour, she joked with Stephen Colbert that she just wanted to be the old lady in the room that would not shut up, who always had another thing to say. The elder that the next generation just has to “excuse.” I love that image, and Michelle Obama may even make us believe she’ll become that someday. But I truly don’t think she will. We need hope right now. We need to believe change is possible, and that’s precisely what she’ll give us.
As for what exactly needs to change? We can read between the lines. We all know even without her telling us.
Header Image Source: Netflix