Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 5th, 2020
Becoming (Nadia Hallgren, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
In 2018, former United States First Lady Michelle Obama published her memoir, Becoming, soon thereafter embarking on a 34-stop tour that, according to what we see in the eponymous documentary from Nadia Hallgren (a cinematographer here making her feature directorial debut), became a collective national catharsis for attendees both celebrating Obama’s life and mourning the end of her and her husband’s historic occupancy of the White House. Indeed, it is stunning, everyday, to contemplate how quickly this country went from having such an intellectual, thoughtful and compassionate duo as our leader and right-hand woman to the dyspeptic tweeter-in-chief who subsequently took over. Depressed and anxious? Let Becoming, the movie, soothe your anguish over the course of its uplifting 90 minutes.
As much concert film as anything else, the documentary breaks no new formal ground in its presentation of highlights from the tour and from Obama’s life, yet is relentlessly powerful in its forward narrative trajectory. As with most nonfiction biopics, Becoming succeeds or fails based on the charisma of its subject and the opinion the audience brings of that subject to the viewing experience. It is unlikely that diehard Obama haters will come away from the movie with their minds changed; on the other hand, why would they watch it, in the first place? This is unfortunate, however, as Michelle Obama is, above all, a model citizen, someone who grew up in a working-class household, a descendant of slaves, worked hard and not only made something significant of herself, but helped another person, her husband, be the best version of himself he could be. That is the American dream, and we should all be proud on her behalf.
Michelle Obama, née Robinson, walks us through her childhood, education and early career, from the South Side of Chicago, to Princeton, then Harvard Law School, and finally back to Chicago, where she met Barack Obama when he was assigned to her as a mentee at the law firm where they both worked. We meet her older brother Craig, her mother Marian (her father died of complications from multiple sclerosis) and, at one point, the 44th President, himself, who makes an appearance at one of her book-tour presentations. We also see many of those presentations, edited into joyful montages featuring a great variety of hosts, including Stephen Colbert, Valerie Jarrett, Gayle King, and Conan O’Brien. These sequences are intercut with scenes of Obama with her staff, visiting her childhood home, hanging out with family, or interacting with high-school students in workshops along the tour. Tireless and gracious, she makes sure to give everyone her full attention.
Overall, then, Becoming does what it sets out to do, the lavish tapestry of a cinematic paean it weaves enveloping us in an implicit call to action to be more like its subject. Be kind and aim high; it’s a simple enough goal, and Nallgren nails it. Yes, the movie often feels like hagiography, but given the state of the nation, we could all use an inspiring figure like Michelle Obama, if not an actual saint. Amen to that.