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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Michelle Obama’s legacy in ‘Becoming’

The successes and compromises that led Michelle Obama to the gilded cage of the White House

In the 89-minute Netflix documentary “Becoming,” the world is given a glimpse into the statuesque, unwavering woman that stood equal to her husband, former President Barack Obama. 

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is America’s first African-American first lady, a double-Ivy League educated lawyer, the face of the “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity and the woman that brought both modernity and sophistication to the White House with each outfit.

The documentary, released on May 5, 2020, is a collection of conversations, family moments and intimate experiences of Michelle’s life. Viewers see the nonlinear  progression of Michelle’s journey from growing up in a working class family in the South side of Chicago to being the inhabitant of the most famous address in America—1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

The documentary is a visual companion to her 2018 memoir “Becoming.” It begins with Michelle centerstage in an interview with Oprah Winfrey at a packed press event for her book. Michelle is no longer the current first lady, but rather a proud veteran of the White House, an empty-nester with both her daughters—Malia and Sasha—attending college and a woman who can finally tell her side of the story.

As the documentary progresses, a myriad of family photos at Michelle’s childhood home spark backstories of a strict household in which excellence was not only encouraged, but expected. 

Past and present collide when Michelle, an internationally recognized political figure who is often flanked by a sea of secret service, stands alone in her childhood bedroom reminiscing about the experiences that made her who she is today. 

Michelle’s intense loss of her father plays a defining theme throughout the documentary. Feelings of melancholy and loss emerge on screen, as her late father’s wrinkled, beige, empty recliner sits empty, awaiting the man who instilled in Michelle the drive to be successful in all her endeavors.  

We also get to see more cheerful family interactions when Michelle discusses the relationship between her older brother, Craig Robinson, and their mother, in an interview. “I am the first lady but my mother is like, ‘When is Craig coming?’” Michelle said. She goes on to say, “I’m like, ‘I live in the White House. What more do I have to do?’” 

The backstory of Michelle and Barack’s uncanny love story also unfolds in the documentary. Michelle recounts how she was his superior at the law firm they both worked at and how he was often late. But it was his deep voice that sealed the deal for her. 

Throughout the film, it is obvious that Michelle struggled with the intense scrutiny and cruel commentary that came with her husband’s transition into politics. Barack was senator of Illinois in 2004 before becoming the President of the U.S. in 2008, and Michelle had to become recluse and calculated because of the media’s attempts at trying to reduce her whole, complex identity to the trope of an “angry Black woman.” 

Themes of a gilded cage, entrapment and personal sacrifice color many scenes of the documentary with Michelle struggling to make the coldness of the White House feel like a warm home for her family.

Feelings of resentment percolate through Michelle’s retelling of the compromises she made to allow Barack to honor his ambitions while she put a hold on hers to not only raise their children but be the kind of spouse a president requires. 

Yet, she sows the seeds of hope with the message of unity. She reminds us that by daring to be vulnerable, believing in the value of our stories and having the courage to fight for change, the things that seem to divide us will bring us together. 

The Netflix documentary “Becoming” showcases Michelle’s legacy. It is a conglomeration of the successes, isolating losses, moments of motherhood and overall experiences of being the first lady. It reminds us of the undeniable Black excellence of a woman who not only shattered glass ceilings but inspired a generation of women, immigrants, people of color and little girls to never doubt who they are and who they can become. 

Written by: Muhammad Tariq — arts@theaggie.org


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