Documentary Review: Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” tour gets at her appeal

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As an entertainment journalist, I’ve been to a lot of book signings over the years — decades. And for all the excitement that gets fans worked up to meet their idol — novelist, film memoirist or whoever — I’ve never seen one cry.

There was a lot of crying wherever former First Lady Michelle Obama went promoting her autobiography “Becoming.” Thrilled tears of joy and that word her husband’s political career beat senseless, “hope” just flowed from people, seemingly relieved just to be in the presence of someone who represents so much to so many people, across the country and around the world.

That’s the big take-away from “Becoming,” a smart, empathetic, funny and officially sanctioned portrait of Michelle O., skimming the surface of her life during her 2018 tour promoting the book, and inspiring millions to start the process of making America decent again.

The Obamas Netflix production company filmed it, a movie of backstage moments and conversations with family and a couple of intimate associates, but mostly on-stage at huge venues, fielding softball questions from friendly interviewers such as Gayle King, Oprah, Colbert, Conan and Reese Witherspoon.

The reasons she has become such a beloved figure pop out from the film, starting with her refreshing frankness in talking about the divided America we live in, which still managed to put the Obamas in the White House.

“We ourselves were a provocation.”

There’s the pressure of the position, being the first representatives of a racial minority to reach their position, the pressure of expectations, the constant awareness of the spotlight and the “relentlessly personal attacks” that come, given the slightest excuse by the right wing smear machine.

“You have to get it right 100 percent of the time.”

Sleeveless? The HORROR! Worse than a War on Christmas!

The film remembers the First Lady’s fondness for dancing and laughing, and her ongoing outreach, the connections she made and continues to make with school children and college kids. There are meetings with small college groups, high school overachievers, even on an Indian reservation, captured during the tour.

The most political she gets is speaking of how “a lot of our folks (Black voters) didn’t vote” in 2016, and in the off-year elections which were pretty much the undoing of the Obama presidency. His election was followed by two years tied-up on Obamacare, and six years of being pushed around by a viciously partisan Congress led by Mitch McConnell.

If you don’t think we got where we are today thanks to the consequences of that, the professorial remove Obama maintained (partly by necessity, thanks to the understandable reluctance to be “the scary Black man”), unlike Bill Clinton’s learning to fight back, you’re following the wrong Twitterers.

Young Michelle Robinson’s “story” includes being told “You’re not Princeton material” by a high school principal, a roommate who moved out of her dorm room in college because “her mother was horrified that I was Black,” her idolizing of older brother Craig and still being able to pick out Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy” at the family piano. She talks of her most recent ancestor to be in bondage, of her late father’s love of jazz and of the potential lost when this relative or that one failed to have the opportunities in a deeply racist culture to achieve all they might have.

Her deepest insights are the recognition that as far as college is concerned, “there are all KINDs of ‘affirmative action…legacy (students admitted because their parents attended the school), athletics AND poor kids.”

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The most entertaining comments come in her discussion of being courted by her law firm underling, Barack “Barry” Obama, who asked her out (they were the only two Black Harvard Law grads in the place) only to get a “Dude, that would be sooo tacky.”

He’d been late for work his first day, getting an eyeroll and “trifling Black man” label from her for that. But the mechanics of the marriage are revealed when she says “I didn’t want to be just an appendage to HIS dreams.”

Candid thoughts about her Secret Service detail, an attempt to slip her daughters outside the White House to experience a little of the Marriage Equality celebration, listening to her morning jam on the way to the day’s work (prayer circles with her mostly-female support staff/team), are balanced with remembering the America that wasn’t on board with all of that, the Charleston church shooting and the like.

Mostly, “Becoming” is a collection of “feels,” hugs and tears with fans, students and family, and big promotional moments that director Nadia Hallgren wisely never allows to come off as a “victory lap.” Entering stadiums to the gushing introductions of the likes of Oprah, played in by Alicia Keys’ anthem “This Girl is on Fire,” could easily have led this unapologetic hagiography to that.

If you want more revealing material than that, read the book, or wait for a biography that isn’t introduced by Reese and written (or directed) by Oprah.

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MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and brief language

Cast: Michelle Obama, Phoebe Robinson, Craig Robinson, Stephen Colbert, Oprah Winfrey, many others

Credits: Directed by Nadia Hallgren. A Netflix release, a Higher Ground production.

Running time: 1:29

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