She is an international icon, yet she talks with strangers as if they are her very best friends. She revels in her status, yet openly discusses her vulnerabilities. She moves deftly from riotous humor to wrenching soul-searching with an apparent spontaneity that’s surely grounded in practice. She’s a marvel.
If you’re fortunate enough to have Netflix access, you can watch the new documentary, Becoming, now. If you don’t have Netflix, I’m sure it will be more widely distributed in the near future.
I don’t think my description of the film will detract from your experience: Michelle Obama’s magnetism—and the poignancy of the recent trajectory of her life and that of President Obama—must be witnessed to be fully appreciated.
(The amazing orator, President Charisma, plays a relatively small part in this documentary.)
But if you’d rather watch it without a sense of deja vu, I excuse you from reading this post—with absolutely no hard feelings.
I viewed the documentary as a welcome antidote to the present. It combines snippets from Michelle’s 34-city 2018 book tour following the publication of her book Becoming, with shots from those often happy White House years filled with hope, and remembrances of her childhood and early years with Barack.
It reminds us that our national reality not so many years ago says much about who we are as a people—the good and the bad—but in better perspective than many of us can currently manage.
When asked what those last hours in the White House were like, she says they were very busy. Apparently, daughters Malia and Sasha often had sleepovers there with their friends, and the friends pleaded for one last visit the night before.
So the 44th First Lady of the United States ran around calling out to sleepy young girls,
“Wake up; the Trumps are coming and you got to get out!”
While we’re on the subject of the White House, I note two actions Michelle took early on.
She and Barack were dismayed they were being served by aging African American or Latino men dressed in tuxedos. These men could have been her uncles, she said.
“I didn’t want them [her daughters] seeing grown men serving them in tuxedos.”
So they changed the dress code.
Additionally, she begged the housekeepers not to make Malia and Sasha’s beds. As she explained:
“They won’t be living here forever. I am not raising girls who don’t know how to make a bed!”
The last day in the White House was highly emotional, but she knew she had to keep her feelings hidden for fear her tears would be misunderstood. But once on the plane, she says:
“I sobbed for thirty minutes—eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.”
Elsewhere she notes that
“It was hard to wake up every day and maintain the level of perfection absolutely required of Barack and me as President and First Lady.”
She recalls the first campaign, in 2008. She had become an effective campaigner, and the opposition knew it. She was depicted as “the angry black woman,” and Fox News commentators asked: “Does Michelle Obama hate America?”
The fun “fist bump” the Obamas shared became a nefarious sign of their alleged radicalism, their “otherness.”
This barrage had an impact: she began to talk less freely and became “more scripted than ever before.”
Being so falsely portrayed wasn’t easy. She is candid about the impact.
“That does hurt. That changes the shape of a person’s soul.”
If anyone wonders whether Michelle Obama will ever run for office, which is an oft-heard liberal dream, I believe she has definitively provided her answer.
With Obama’s election, she recalled:
“Life changes instantly—we were shot out of a cannon and didn’t have time to adjust. Every blink of eye is analyzed. Your life isn’t yours anymore.”
There’s surely a measure of irony in the fact that she chose this very public book tour as a time to reflect on what she’d just been through, to be “unplugged for the first time in a long time.”
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that it was also a thoroughly justified means of reminding the public of Barack and Michelle Obama’s many solid accomplishments in those eight years—at a time when they have—in public, at least—silently watched the White House’s current occupant systematically seek to destroy every one of them.
There’s no mention in the film of Michelle’s famous “kitchen” garden, that tangible evidence of her successfully launching a campaign to improve the health of Americans, especially school children, which included improvements in the quality of school lunches.
To me, the destruction of that garden and all its bounty was an early and potent symbol of the senseless cruelty and disregard for the public’s health that Donald Trump has demonstrated (an attitude writ large in our present disastrous situation).
But back to our heroine. On the book tour, she greets each admirer with warmth and humor. They love her, and she basks in that affection. She challenges young people, urging them to ask themselves these questions: Who are you? What are you about? And what gives you joy?
They tell her how profoundly she’s affected them. One young woman says that Michelle’s discussing her postpartum depression helped her get through her own. Michelle describes the benefits she derives:
“Sharing somebody’s story gives me what I don’t have because all my actions are so sanitized. It helps me stay connected.”
Watching her connect with each book buyer on those interminably long lines was one of my favorite parts of the film.
Notably, in one gathering she met with the members of two book clubs who had read Becoming: one comprised of all African American women; the other all white women. The book “creates bridges.”
One of the white women describes her family’s being part of the “white flight” from Chicago neighborhoods as the racial composition changed. Michelle observes that it was her family from whom they were fleeing.
She points to her class photos: the kindergarten class has many white faces; the 8th grade class is entirely African American.
When an African American teenage girl asks her how she’s able to avoid feeling invisible, she pays tribute to her parents: at the dinner table on the South Side of Chicago, she and her brother were always encouraged to speak up, ask questions.
“My parents always made me feel visible,” she says. “We can’t afford to wait for the world to regard us as equal. I have high expectations of young people.”
She describes in detail a searing occasion on which—without the confidence her parents’ instilled—she might have been invisible. Her brother had gone to Princeton, but the high school guidance counselor told Michelle she was not Princeton material.
She did go to Princeton, where she learned on arrival that one of her intended roommates had moved out after hearing she was African-American, believing she was dangerous.
Still, she excelled there, graduated from Harvard Law, and learned that not everyone in these hallowed institutions is as special as one might think.
She makes a similar observation based on world travels and being in some of the most rarefied meetings among leading, exalted individuals.
“I’ve been at the most powerful tables in the world. I’m coming down from the mountaintop. Don’t listen [to the naysayers who may question these young people’s worth]; they don’t know how they got there.”
Of the guidance counselor’s misguidance, she says she’s “still a little salty about that one.”
In the course of the book tour, she fills large venues—with people exuding happiness and good feeling.
“What I experience in those big arenas is the power of gathering: we’re sharing a set of experiences.”
The image of those diverse, highly civilized audiences is in stark relief to the Presidential rallies marked by hatred and divisiveness that we’ve been witnessing in the past several years.
Michelle provides a stunning insight into her thoughts, feelings, and White House life in detailing the day that marriage equality became the law of the land.
It happened to be the same tragic day as the funeral services for the African Americans gunned down in church by a white supremacist in Charleston.
When the Obamas returned from Charleston to the White House, now illuminated with the appropriate equality colors, they saw joyous people congregating in front. “I need to be a part of this,” she said, dragging Malia as her partner in crime to get outside.
After pulling on the locked front doors, she persuaded the Secret Service to let them slip out the back, where they saw some of the celebration from the steps.
“I had to have some indicator that all this is worth it,” she says—“we’re moving the country forward.”
She expresses sadness about the voters in 2016.
“A lot of our folks didn’t vote. It was almost like a slap in the face. I understand those who voted for Trump. But people who didn’t vote at all—young people, women—thought this was a game. They just couldn’t be bothered at all. That’s my trauma.”
I sure hope that sentiment resonates broadly this November.
Does she still feel that “when they go low, we go high?” she was asked. “I try,” she says, with a wry smile. But she does still feel there’s a desire to overcome “the racialism and tribalism that are tearing this country apart.”
“If we’re gonna get anywhere with each other, we have to say who were are…I am the former First Lady, and the descendant of slaves…
“The energy that is out there is much better than what we see. This country is good; the people are good.”
When Stephen Colbert interviews her about filling arenas with people from all different backgrounds, she says,
“I’m not alone. I like this not being divided. Share stories; be vulnerable. I remain hopeful that people want better…”
She has been doing just that. And now,
”My life is starting to be mine again. There is another chapter waiting for me out there.”
I haven’t yet read her book Becoming. But I look forward to reading every chapter. And then watching her evolve into her next chapter…and the next…