Kevin Fallon, The Daily Beast, May 4, 2020
The release of Becoming this Wednesday, centering around Michelle Obama’s event book tour and conversation series in support of her bestselling memoir, should garner its fair amount of curious eyeballs, whether from those craving the nostalgic solace of 90 minutes spent back in the world of the Obamas or those parsing it for messaging or criticism of the Trump administration and the current powder-keg cultural climate.
Directed by Nadia Hallgren, Becoming offers some of that. But, more often, its interest is how Michelle Obama feels about those expectations of her.
While traveling the country and taking the temperature of how citizens, or at least her supporters, feel about things—“The energy out there is much better than what we see. I wish people didn’t feel badly because this country is good. People are good. People are decent.”—she grapples with her role going forward in guiding a way through it.
As the first black first lady, she considers how her experience in the White House and the expectations put on her then influenced the public role she chooses to live now. The crux of it all is that her life was taken from her for eight years, a service of which she was proud and is the greatest joy of her career. But now that her life is a semblance of her own again, what does she do with it?
“Every gesture you make, every blink of an eye is analyzed,” she said of her time in the White House. “You have the world watching every move you make. Your life isn’t yours anymore….The whole idea of doing the tour is about being able to have the time to actually reflect, to figure out what just happened to me? It’s the panic moment of this is totally me, unplugged, for the first time in a long time.”
In moments private and public, during staged interviews with the likes of Gayle King, Stephen Colbert, and Reese Witherspoon, she grapples with much of what we are all grappling with as a country: What is it that she wants to become?
The remarkable, and some might argue the disappointing, thing about Becoming is that the headlines are few and far between.
While Trump is casually referenced from the first minutes and the mood of the country scores the film’s entire conversation, it’s not until roughly two-thirds through the film that she addresses her negative feelings about his 2016 victory directly. Twice, she talks about how painful it is to her that black voters didn’t turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton, calling the decision not to vote more painful to her than those who voted for Trump.
“It takes some energy to go high, and we were exhausted from it. Because when you are the first black anything…” she said, referencing anecdotes from her Becoming book. “So the day I left the White House and I write about how painful it was to sit on that [inauguration] stage. A lot of our folks didn’t vote. It was almost like a slap in the face.”
“I understand the people who voted for Trump,” she continued. “The people who didn’t vote at all, the young people, the women, that’s when you think, man, people think this is a game. It wasn’t just in this election. Every midterm. Every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up. After all that work, they just couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.”
Where Becoming reveals its value then is in the personal stories that uncover more about what life really was like those eight years for a black woman and mother plucked from obscurity to represent the most significant progress for African Americans in United States political history.
An early anecdote reveals what her last day in the White House was like, which was stressful for reasons you wouldn’t expect: her daughters Sasha and Malia wanted to have one last sleepover with their friends. She had a hell of a time clearing the house the next day. “I was like, ‘Wake up! The Trumps are coming. You gotta get up. Get out!’”