(An edited version of this piece was first published in Business Standard.)
“If we are going to get anywhere with each other, we have to be willing to say who we are. I am the former First Lady of the United States and also a descendant of slaves. It’s important to keep that truth right there,” says Michelle Obama in a new documentary film titled Becoming, which was released on Netflix in May 2020. Though she has studied at Princeton and Harvard, worked at a law firm called Sidley & Austin, and served in leadership roles at the University of Chicago, she is best known for being the wife of Barack Obama — the first Black President in the White House.
With a running time of 89 minutes, this film was directed by Nadia Hallagren who followed her high-profile protagonist on a 34-city book tour to promote her bestselling memoir Becoming (2018). It captures how Mrs. Obama — as she is addressed by all her staff — tried to redefine the sexist job description of being a First Lady by becoming a force to reckon with instead of merely being a glorified hostess of parties and cheerleader for her husband. If the film seems overly flattering, it might be helpful to remember that it was produced by an entertainment company founded by the Obamas themselves.
Apart from talking about the couple’s journey with marriage counseling that helped her take control of her own happiness within their relationship, she opens up about how she did not want to “just be an appendage to his dreams.” She wanted them to be equals, and to also understand the new responsibilities that came into her life overnight just by virtue of being married to the man she fell in love with and had two beautiful daughters with. These tender moments of revelation make the film an endearing one to watch despite how unidimensional the story is.
“I stopped talking off the cuff. I stopped talking freely. I used teleprompters. I had to be much more scripted than I had ever been before,” says Mrs. Obama about her White House years, when she was given a hard time, a fate that befalls most public figures when each move is closely watched. It is not uncommon for patriarchal societies to attack women for the decisions and choices made by the men they are married to. She endured it from 2009 to 2017, a period that she recollects with gratitude as well as a huge sigh of relief.
Anxious about being stereotyped as ‘the angry Black woman’, Mrs. Obama began to consider her public image more seriously. In the film, she remarks, “I had to become more strategic in how I presented myself because it had the potential of defining me for the rest of my life…Fashion, for a woman, still predominates how people view you and that’s not fair, that’s not right, but it’s true. And that’s when fashion isn’t just fashion; it’s how you turn it into your tool rather than being a victim of it.”
It is the history of racial injustice that compels Blacks in the United States to be extra-cautious. White supremacists are always lurking around for an excuse to discriminate against them due to the colour of their skin. The expectation to be ladylike at all moments was too much to bear for this former First Lady. She says, “Barack and I lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation.” This statement becomes all the more poignant when she recounts names of Blacks who have been killed recently in incidents of racist violence — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland.
Having a Black person occupy the highest political office in the country did not shake up the foundations of racism in the United States, and this is something that troubles Mrs. Obama in a deeply personal way. Her father was a working class man who worked terribly hard to put his children through school. She remembers a time when Black families like her were moving into new neighbourhoods, and White people were selling off their properties there because they felt unsafe. Her White roommate in college moved out because that person’s mother thought that it would be dangerous to live with a Black woman.
The United States is having a powerful moment of reckoning around the intergenerational trauma caused by racial injustice, and this makes Hallagren’s film all the more topical. As people rise in protest all over the country following the death of George Floyd, Mrs. Obama’s voice is an important one. She may not be issuing calls to defund police departments or bring down historic statues but she is sharing her own story with book clubs, church groups and student meetings all over her country and with viewers binge-watching during a pandemic-induced lockdown.
In a film that features intimate glimpses of her husband, her mother, her children, her brother, and the fond memories of her deceased father, Mrs. Obama says, “Invisibility starts here. We cannot afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen. We are far from that. You’ve got to find the tools within yourself to feel visible and to be heard and to use your voice.” This is not merely a leader giving a pep talk but a mother who is determined to make sure that her daughters understand how fragile and transitory privilege can be.
The film shows that Mrs. Obama spent a lot of time thinking about how to make “this mansion with butlers and staff feel like a home,” and she strictly instructed the housekeepers to let the girls “learn how to clean their own rooms and make their beds and do their laundry.” Her passion for empowering young people begins at home, and extends to the ones she meets on her tour. One of them, towards the end of this film, says, “I am a non binary human. I am becoming brave and unafraid to live openly, truthfully and joyfully.”
(All the images used in this piece are from the film Becoming on Netflix.)