“Intimate” is an interesting word. In the case of “Becoming,” Netflix’s new “intimate” documentary on Michelle Obama, it’s mostly applicable. As the film was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, access was, as you can imagine, good.
“Good” is also an interesting word. “Becoming” takes viewers behind-the-scenes with the former first lady on her book tour, scoring interviews with her employees and family. Once again, with the Obamas as producers, access to prime subjects and events was not lacking.
Producing your own documentary, however, ensures “good” access and intimacy is also on your own terms and under your own control. In that sense, “Becoming” benefits from access and intimacy, but only to the extent the Obamas allowed. The film’s relentless flattery becomes boring somewhere around the 60-minute mark.
Viewers learn little new information about its subject. That’s probably fine. The purpose of “Becoming” seems to be as a breezy visual companion to Obama’s ultra-popular 2018 memoir, and is heavily driven by clips from public interviews during the book tour, interspersed with sit-downs for the documentary, vintage pictures, and old news footage. There is no sense that anything revealing is exposed, even in the film’s rare interview with her children. The Michelle Obama presented on screen does not depart from her public persona meaningfully at all.
That said, Obama is charismatic, likable, and the product of a genuinely admirable journey from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The film captures all that well, with ostensibly candid contributions from her brother, mom, staff, children, and husband.
We hear that Obama’s brother is jokingly believed to be her mother’s favorite child. Obama emotionally recalls the way media backlash to her infamous “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country” quote created setbacks. We see her counseling teenagers, thanking staff members, greeting tearful fans, and interacting with the 44th president backstage. Some of that is genuinely very moving, especially as it underscores her significance to African-American women. In “Becoming,” Obama is caring and smart and down-to-earth.
There is, however, a glaring absence of any footage that challenges her positive public image. Even controversies are raised as obstacles she overcame rather than personal failures. Perhaps it’s because Obama really is just that likable. Or perhaps it’s because she produced the film. Either way, it makes for an interesting contrast with Hulu’s recent “Hillary” hagiography, which was not produced by the Clintons but was clearly directed by a supporter.
“Hillary” pushed some unfavorable questions in the interest of giving the Clintons a platform to tell their story without serious media filtration. Their documentary sought to challenge public perception. “Becoming” sought to confirm it.
And at that, the Obamas succeeded. While Hillary Clinton further revealed a deep bitterness, Michelle emerged exactly as the same woman who dances with Jimmy Fallon, appears at the Kids Choice Awards, delivers great speeches, wears J.Crew, and graces glossy magazine covers — but this time, under a dubious pretense of intimacy.
The documentary label connotes some sense of journalistic mission. But streaming platforms, like film studios, aren’t news outlets. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made that distinction clear last year when he explained away the company’s decision to censor one of its shows in Saudi Arabia. “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power,’ he said. “We’re trying to entertain.”
This is not helpful for films like 2019’s “American Factory,” another Obama-produced Netflix documentary. “American Factory” is obviously an effort to do more than entertain — and not a bad one either. Netflix would like to have its cake and eat it too.
Even if the film’s billing overstates its candor, I’m not sure “Becoming” needed to be hard-hitting. Obama is not universally beloved, but in 2020, she comes about as close to that as any political figure can. That’s partially because she’s likable, partially because the liberal media loves her, and partially because she controls her image well.
It would, of course, be interesting for documentary cameras to catch Obama dealing with a private crisis or thrust into unexpected circumstances. I don’t know that version of Michelle Obama. But as we splinter increasingly into cultural and political niches, if she’s successfully selling herself as a transcender of the daily fray, a likable liberal with soft edges and an uplifting story, it’s not exactly the end of the world.
Someday, perhaps, the groundwork she’s laying now will again empower the Obamas to seriously advance more of the unfortunate agenda they supported in the White House. I don’t know. But “Becoming” is as good an example as any that they’ll at least be smart about it. “Hillary” is not precedent for “Michelle.”