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A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
But if Becoming hadn't been filmed before the Pandemic, even Michelle Obama's super celebrity wouldn't have made it possible to show her greeted by huge crowds, having personal get-togethers with groups of the young women she's inspired sitting close together.
The film produced by Michelle and her husband is fun to watch and slickly staged. Those who read the book, will enjoy seeing Michelle and her family literally moving from stage to screen and the places that have been part of her journey. While it's not necessary to have read the book to see how and why Michelle Robinson became an accomplished career woman, beloved wife of America's first Afrcan-American president, and America's most admired woman.
The film does take us through Obama's growing up in a Chicago neighborhood whose white residents fled as families like the Robinsons moved in, and the interactions with her immediate family. Her feelings about her father are genuinely moving. Yet the show doesn't quite live up to its billing as a "rare and up-close look." Though it's carefully scripted and staged , it never quite hides the fact that we're seeing all that Mrs. Obama wants us to see in order to promote her worthy ambitions to continue using the platform her justly praised tenure as First Lady gave her.
Director Nadia Hallgren has done a fine job giving the viewing audience a sense of being along for the ride — starting with Obama setting off on her book tour. Her life in the White House has surely given her the confidence, presence and know-how to make the most of her celebrity, which makes her claiming the book tour is a means for her to be reflecting on its meaning for her future is a bit disingenuous.
It's because l Obama is a charmer who knows how to elicit applause, laughter with well-timed pauses. She has a story teller's gift for imbuing her personal history with sharp insights into our society. She makes us understand her sennse of being an outsider at Princeton. Her romance with Barack is not given a Harlequin romance twist but reveals he cautious side of her personality. Instead, when he came to work at the same Chicago law firm where she was already established she was reluctant to date him. As she puts it, it was what everyone there expected — "That's just what they are waiting for. You two love each other don’t you? You’re black, he’s black. This will be great."
Obama is at her most natural and endearing self in the scenes showing her l conversations with small groups of young black women facing the same challenges she overcame, notably a sense of isolation in a predominantly white world. Unfortunately, many young black women (or men) don't have a stable family life as she did, with parents with who made her feel visible even in a world that didn't. Obama's recollection of the teacher who told her she wasn't smart enough for an Ivy League college had me wondering if that teacher is watching and blushing.
While the tour was pre-pandemic, the 2016 election ratcheted up the difficulties being visible for minorities does come up. But this venture into politics and comments on the difficulties Barack Obama faced while in office is important but brief. The purpose of the tour was to sell books. And the purpose of this documentary is to get lots of clicks and keep Becoming at the top of Netflix's hit list. With Obama starring in this page to screen documentary and the essence of her "becoming" packed into just an hour and a half, fans of her and her fans and fans of the book are sure to keep it there.
Finally, to further exemplify te enduring 1% status of celebrities in any medium, another celebrity joining Obama on the Netflix hit parade is Jerry Seinfeld with Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill. Like Becoming It was filmed pre-Pandemic at the Beacon which was packed with a big live audience rather than a soundtrack to laugh and applaud . Unlike the Obama documentary it could easily be done virtually but according to the comedian's comments during promotional interviews, he seems to need that live interaction with an audience. While I enjoyed the long running sitcom that made him rich and famous, I found the new show just as easy, and actually more amusing, by looking at my screen only occasionally. Except for the last segment, his jokes were actually quite amusing.
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Directed by Nadia Hallgren
cast: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Phoebe Robinson
Produced by Michelle Obama and Barack Obama Higher Ground Productions
Available at Netflix as of May 6, 2020
Running time 89 minutes