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Review: In 'Becoming,' Michelle Obama offers a glimpse behind the curtain

Netflix documentary follows former First Lady on the book tour behind her best-seller

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Becoming," Michelle Obama lets viewers see as much as she's willing to show. 

This isn't a warts-and-all documentary. It's a slick look at the former first lady, out of the White House and carving out her life post-politics, but it's as polished and smoothed out as a campaign ad. It's a warm latte, delivered to you in your favorite mug.  

Michelle Obama in "Becoming."

That doesn't make it bad. Obama is undoubtedly an inspiring figure and she understands the weight and importance of her image, and "Becoming" is another brick in the wall she has built. She's not about to let that wall fall down now, and she's not going to tear it apart herself. There's too much at stake. 

"Becoming" acts as a companion piece to her 2018 best-seller of the same name, or an alternative to it, for the less literally minded.

It follows her on her massive tour behind the book, which found her packing arenas for discussions of the memoir, and the cross-cutting between the various stops shows that no matter the moderator — chats were hosted by the likes of Gayle King, Stephen Colbert and former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett — the talking points at each remained the same. If you saw her in Detroit, you saw her in Washington, D.C., you saw her in Chicago. 

"Becoming" follows what Obama describes as "the release of eight years of doing everything perfectly," but that release is apparently like letting down an individual hair, not all of her hair. At this point, doing everything perfectly is how she operates. Superman may want to kick his feet up at the end of a long day, but when duty calls, he's still got an S on his chest. 

"Becoming" revisits old family photos and features interviews with Obama's family members, including her brother Craig, who laments, "no brother should have to deal with their sister being the most popular person in the world."

We head to Obama's childhood home where she recalls her working-class roots and the music, BBQs and good times she says shaped who she is. 

"I am from the south side of Chicago. That tells you as much about me as you need to know," she says.

She discusses the rugged determination it took to get into Princeton University, even when she was told by her guidance counselors she didn't belong there. (Her grudge against that doubter is about as raw as she gets in the documentary, save for her admonishment of people who don't bother to vote.) 

And she talks about race, and how after growing up in Chicago, she found herself truly in the minority for the first time in her life when she arrived at Princeton.

She dives into her relationship with Barack Obama, and the former U.S. president comes out to greet his wife on stage at a tour stop. It's calculated, sure, but everything in "Becoming" is calculated. When you reach the level of the Obamas, spontaneity no longer exists. It comes with the territory.

Director Nadia Hallgren loses focus a few times when she briefly concentrates on figures Obama interacts with at discussions; it's important to show the impact Obama has on those she meets, but it doesn't fit the confines of this particular documentary. 

We do see Obama connecting with those fans at various meet-and-greets, and she discusses the tips she employs to make those brief interactions feel genuine and meaningful. It's a valuable skill, learned over time, and in many ways it's what's at play in "Becoming." It's a peek behind the curtain, yes, but in many ways it's simply another meet-and-greet.




Rated PG: for some thematic elements and brief language

Running time: 89 minutes

On Netflix