‘I am the former first lady of the united states and also a descendant of slaves’
When I read Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming last January, it was huge. After spending months having time to read only my university reading list, I finally had a moment just after Christmas to read something for myself, and Becoming was the perfect inspirational, heart-warming, but ultimately grounding book to read. As Barack says in the documentary, Michelle Obama is a beautiful storyteller, so when I saw that Netflix was releasing a documentary film based on her autobiography, following her book tour, I absolutely could not wait.
The best thing about this film is how fully it dedicates itself to promoting artists of colour. The star is obviously a prominent black woman, surrounded by her black family, so from the beginning, we have a film committed to POC visibility. This is taken further by the autobiographical tone of the film: following on from Obama’s autobiography, Becoming features the key moments of her life and personal development too, so black experiences of childhood, gentrification, university, the professional world, and, of course, politics are constantly centred. But they do not stop here. Becoming’s director and cinematographer is Nadia Hallgren, a prolific, talented black filmographer. Here, again we see that Obama practices what she preaches. In the countless moments in which we see her encouraging young women of colour to reach for the stars, we see that Michelle Obama truly makes space for people, and more specifically women, of colour to thrive and shine.
Much to my absolute pleasure, jazz artist Kamasi Washington composed the music for the film, with the soundtrack also featuring many of his own album tracks. The soundtrack is perfect, as he fills the room with atmospheric, mood-accompanying jazz. Not only does the music reflect Michelle Obama’s upbringing in Chicago, with her grandfather’s record collection, but it is a constant force in the cinematography. In a documentary, music is so important in creating the right narrative and mood, and Washington did so perfectly. The music in this film is, again, committed to showcasing black talent. Instead of accidentally letting the soundtrack be whitewashed, the music production team made an effort to infiltrate every spare second of Becoming with black excellence, as we can see through the inclusion of Frank Ocean and Drake. As Obama says in the film, ‘we can’t wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen’, and her dedication to black visibility is made clear. From the faces in the crowd to the music we hear underneath them, every moment of this film absolutely drips black excellence, for which I truly applaud both Michelle Obama and Nadia Hallgren.
The most heartwarming element of Becoming is seeing just how inspirational Michelle Obama is to so many people, both directly and indirectly. Hallgren documents so many of Obama’s most intimate moments with young people of colour, especially young women. As she sits down with a group of Native American students, she acknowledges that, despite being of colour herself, she can never understand the nuances of their experience. She constantly lays out the path for us all to follow, as strong allies of all people of colour, whatever our own experience may be. The most moving moments of Becoming are undoubtedly when Michelle Obama engages with women of colour, young or old. Whether she is encouraging a young black woman to continue in her dedication to education or celebrating with a group of elderly, black church-goers about the power of her position, Obama is at her most tender and intimate when she is sitting with women of color who inspire her.
Becoming is not a political film, just as the autobiography was not a political book – if anything, Obama’s autobiography unveiled to us just how uninterested in being a political figure she had always been – but there is a political strength to it. Michelle Obama laments feeling trapped as a new mother, she relays her anger at being torn apart by the media during Barack Obama’s campaigns, and she reminds us of how far we have to go. As she lists the names of murdered black people, we see their faces on screen, and we know that there is so much more work to be done. In this crucial moment for the Black Lives Matter campaign, this moment is so poignant. Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States, constantly and unapologetically uses her voice and platform to shine a light on injustices enacted upon the black community, and this is a warning we must heed. As she describes those who named America ‘post-racial’ following Barack Obama’s election naive, we know that she could not have been more right.
When I read her autobiography, I couldn’t put it down. I was eager to lap up more of Michelle Obama’s tender recollection of her individual drive, her loving childhood, and her incredibly singular experiences as FLOTUS. Becoming is no different. It is an incredibly poignant, yet educational, journey. Whether you want to know more about Michelle Obama as a person, or about the vital work she does for marginalised communities, Becoming tells you all you need to know.