The New Documentary Every Woman Should Watch

The New Documentary Every Woman Should Watch

Following on from the incredible success of her written memoir, a new documentary following former First Lady Michelle Obama has just landed on Netflix. Becoming – which takes its title from the book of the same name – is a candid insight into Obama’s transition from international stateswoman to modern-day icon. Here’s why it’s the one documentary all women should make it a point to watch…

Michelle Obama’s new Netflix documentary could easily be labelled a PR stunt. A 90-minute attempt to cement the former presidential family’s image in light of the controversial administration which has followed it into the White House. Instead, Becoming – which follows the previous First Lady as she embarks on her own solo book tour – is a powerful reminder that hope is an ever-enduring force. As the preconception of a well-oiled propaganda machine melts away, viewers are left with a candid insight into Obama’s transition from international stateswoman to modern-day icon.

For many, Obama has lit the way when it comes to understanding and owning your own identity – something she has accomplished despite being subject to intense scrutiny. And while the film plays homage to that, it also attempts to wipe away some of the glossy topcoat which usually accompanies this message. From being compared to a terrorist during the 2008 political campaign, to being accused of promoting anti-Americanism, viewers are reminded of how much hate – not to mention blatant racism – has been directed her way. What’s encouraging, of course, is how clearly these attempts to denigrate her character – and her legacy – have failed.

Despite the bold and empowering subtext, the crushing weight of perfectionism is a conscious theme throughout. When asked what it was like to leave the White House, Obama admits to sobbing on their final Air Force One flight for a solid 30 minutes. “It was just the release of trying to do everything, perfectly,” she says. “How many people are in that position? Where the entire attention of everything is you,” she continues. “Every gesture, every blink of any eye is being analysed. The world is watching every move you make. Your life isn’t yours anymore.” To combat this, she claims she was highly strategic about how she presented herself to the world. It’s the perfect set-up for why she chose to embark on an international tour – and tell her own version of events. “The idea of the tour is to have the time to reflect and figure out what just happened to me,” she says.

Obama has lit the way when it comes to understanding and owning your own identity – something she has accomplished despite being subject to intense scrutiny.

The segment with Obama’s personal stylist Meredith Koop is particularly eye-opening. Koop admits to treating her job while the Obamas were in the White House as “costume design” – dressing the First Lady and her daughters for a role, so that the focus remained solely on the work they were doing, rather than the clothes they were wearing. Now, says Koop, they are free to experiment without judgement. “She’s not a minimalist,” Koop admits, before picking out a blinged-out pink wool suit from the rack. “I mean, I can see Elvis in this,” she chuckles. For anyone who remembers the sequin over-the-knee boots Obama wore during one stop of the tour, they also get an honorary mention.

To this day, the power of what Michelle Obama chooses to wear cannot be ignored, and there are clear decisions made within the film to remind viewers of this. The section which shows her watching old footage of her and her husband dancing at the Inaugural Ball in 2009 feels particularly well-crafted. After seeing herself sway in that iconic white Jason Wu gown, the scene immediately cuts to the present day, moments before she takes to the stage in her home town of Chicago. Once again, she is dressed in white – only this time it’s a sharply-tailored, sequined trouser suit. The message is clear: “I’m the one wearing the trousers, now. It’s my time.”

Most of this documentary will show you a side of Michelle Obama you already know. She is wickedly funny, highly intelligent and ridiculously quick off the mark. But it also shows us the parts which were overshadowed during the Obamas’ time in office. Invisibility and unworthiness are constant topics, whether it be her recollection of the advice she received as a young girl (her school guidance counsellor told her she “wasn’t Princeton material” despite the fact she went on to both the Ivy-League institution and Harvard Law School) or her attempt to establish her own identity within her less-than-ordinary marriage. 

“I knew he was a tsunami coming after me and if I didn’t get my act together, I would be swept up,” she tells Gayle King when asked about her relationship during one of the live shows. “I didn’t just want to be an appendage to his dreams.” She is candid about the state of their union – with all its highs and lows – and voluntarily expands on the time the couple saw a marriage counsellor to ensure its survival. The main thing she learnt? Not letting her happiness depend on her husband’s ability to make her happy, she says. “Bravo,” replies King. 

Her words come across as exceptionally well thought through [...] and something we as women should – and can – carry with us in our day-to-day lives.

Indeed, the moment Barack Obama surprises his wife on stage could easily be interpreted as a thunder-stealing mis-step. But not for long. “This is my book, my version of reality,” the former First Lady quips when her husband – jokingly – attempts to correct some of the anecdotes about their early courtship. Within seconds, it soon becomes clear this modern-day partnership is based on mutual respect and admiration, albeit one which has required constant work and self-reflection. Obama is also brutally honest about her decision to have children, and the impact it had on the power dynamics in her marriage. “It made it harder,” she admits. “Something had to give and it was my aspirations and dreams. I made that concession. Not because he said you have to quit your job, but [because] it felt like I can’t do all of this – I have to dial it back.”

No longer. With the couple now empty nesters, Obama is busy dedicating herself to working with young people, most of whom are trying to find their place in the world, irrespective of their background. At one point, she tells a discussion group: “We cannot afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen. We’re far from it. Time will not allow it. You’ve got to find the tools within yourself to feel visible.” It’s at this moment you realise that, in some ways, Michelle Obama’s biggest achievement is her complete lack of cliché. It would be easy to sit on stage and recite the familiar platitudes we’ve all heard before. Instead, her words come across as exceptionally well thought through (if there’s a script, it’s hard to tell), and something we as women should – and can – carry with us in our day-to-day lives.

On reflection, one of the most memorable moments of the film hits early on, when the one-time First Lady is asked how she is coping with her return to normal life. In response, she says there is no return to ‘normal’, there is no going back or ‘getting back on track’. Instead, she says, life moves forward, with all of its interruptions and unexpected developments. All she can do is accept her new reality. 

An important message for all of us, right now. 

Becoming is available on Netflix now

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