“Becoming” opens similarly to the memoir of the same name — with former first lady Michelle Obama walking around her home. However, where the book is an intimate look into Obama’s life before and after her husband’s eight years in the White House, the documentary keeps her at a distance. Obama’s dazzling public persona and impassioned speaking grabs the viewer’s attention, but the film does a less than stellar job at providing a thorough view of the first lady, instead falling into what feels like a highlight reel for the “Becoming” book tour. The soundtrack and cinematography lack any frills, which allow Obama’s presence to shine, but also makes for a quite monotonous hour and a half.
The 2018 “Becoming” book tour, which spanned 10 cities across the nation in crowded stadiums, is the focal point of the film, though it repeatedly weaves in stories and pictures of Obama’s childhood, behind-the-scenes snippets of the tour and highlights of young individuals who attended private meetings with her. While this definitely gives the film some cohesiveness, the format becomes dull after a while. If one of the attendees were to watch the film, it’d be like watching a repeat of the book tour interview; there are few moments where the viewer feels close to Obama, despite the fact that the film is centered on her thoughts and personal experiences. The camera shots get especially tedious — alternating between the same close-up shot of the first lady sitting down, shots of her staff walking alongside her, close-up shots of the tearful crowd or boring shots of the interviewer talking to Obama during the tour. It’s understandable that a documentary’s cinematography will be less frilly than a Hollywood blockbuster, but the lack of deviation makes for a lifeless watch.
The one thing that is not lifeless throughout is the star of the documentary. Obama’s presence and speeches are vibrant and expressive, making it clear why the current first lady would so brazenly plagiarize her 2008 Democratic National Convention speech — Obama maintains a smooth tone throughout but speaks with an underlying passion that is hard to turn away from. Her compelling character is why it is so disappointing that the film keeps her far from the audience’s reach. There is nothing interesting or new in the film that could not be found in her memoir or with an extensive Google search. At some points, the film even intentionally moves away from the first lady to highlight random individuals who met her. These moments, while similar in theme and tone with the rest of the film, stick out because of the lack of connection they have to the first lady herself. It makes more sense for these individual highlights to focus on her immediate family as they were the ones beside her throughout the whirlwind of being the first family, but her children and her husband rarely appear on screen. The former president makes a quick cameo, but mostly, he is just mentioned in passing. These highlights feel disjointed from the rest of the film and add little to the overall quality of the documentary.
It is difficult to decipher what this film is trying to do. If it was released in 2018 in promotion for the 21 additions to her book tour or focused instead on Obama’s work with youth and expanded on the private gatherings she had with high schoolers across the country, it would have made for an adequately interesting watch (or at least a more coherent one). There are moments in the documentary that are undoubtedly heartwarming, like Obama’s short interactions with fans or her final book tour stop set to Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed,” but overall, the film does nothing more than supplement the exceptional memoir in an unexceptional way.
Verdict: The former first lady is the only thing that shines in “Becoming,” the documentary follow-up to her 2018 memoir. While there are impressive moments of warmth and greatness peppered in, the film relies too much on Obama’s charisma while floundering for a purpose. It fails to give the viewer more than superficial insights into the life of the first lady before or after her family’s stay in the White House.