‘Becoming’, available on Netflix from May 6, shows how former First Lady is at her best around people battling the odds
I imagine even some card-carrying Republicans would shed a furtive tear of joy if they woke to find that the Trump incumbency had been a protracted nightmare and Barack was still in the White House.
Under the administration of Donald, America has stepped up its internal race war, seriously weakened its historic links with the EU, the UN, NATO and the WHO, courted crass plutocrats from Putin to Bolsonaro and become an international laughing stock – all for the sake of an economic boom that began under Obama and has just definitively ended.
But spare a thought for Mr Trump, who in his corner has a wife who resembles a shop mannequin and a daughter and son-in-law whose political incompetence is exceeded only by their wild ambition.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, had Michelle, a lawyer, writer and philanthropist who was every inch her husband’s intellectual equal and would be a huge asset to him throughout his two terms, during which she sustained significant popularity levels.
Michelle Obama conducted herself with impeccable dignity during her husband’s tenure, and let’s not forget she had a lot to put up with.
During the 2008 Presidential election campaign, she was portrayed by the right-wing press as a shrewish extremist, and throughout her husband’s two terms she lived through a sustained barrage of bigotry, lies and hatred.
We caught glimpses of the real Michelle from time to time, like the moment she shared a joke with George W. Bush at the inauguration ceremony, but mostly she was obliged to sustain her smiling mask.
In this Netflix documentary, she emerges from her husband’s shadow as we follow her around America and (briefly) the UK during the stadium-filling book tour that accompanied the publication of her bestselling memoir, ‘Becoming’.
This film comes with a caveat: the Obamas have a production deal with Netflix, and ‘Becoming’ was made through their own company, Higher Ground Productions, so those expecting a warts-and-all portrait will go away disappointed.
That said, however, I’m not sure how many warts they’d find anyway, because Michelle Obama’s passion for education, justice and equal opportunity seem utterly genuine, and she seems happiest not on a stage or in front of a TV interviewer but when talking to young people who are making the best of it in disadvantaged neighbourhoods not unlike the one she emerged from herself.
I would have liked a bit more biographical background in ‘Becoming’, which seems to assume that you’re a paid-up fan and have already devoured Michelle’s memoir.
She does, though, return to Chicago’s south side to briefly discuss her upbringing and the influence of her father, who saw that she was bright and encouraged her to aim high.
She recalls meeting her future husband, a young lawyer at the same Chicago firm, and remembers seeing for the first time his remarkable oratorical powers when he spoke at a community event.
The revelation that raising kids in the White House was hard is hardly earth-shattering, but her description of leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the final time is interesting: she sobbed on the plane, she admits, partly out of sadness, mainly from relief.
Michelle Obama can seem so perfect in every way that glimpses of imperfection are attractive. She has not forgiven the high school teacher who insisted she wasn’t smart enough to go to Princeton. She went to Princeton.
And Michelle is still bitter about how she and her husband were treated by the press, even sometimes the liberal press.
We’re shown the notorious New Yorker magazine cover depicting the Obamas as Jihadis exchanging a fist pump. Intended as a satirical comment on midwestern narrow-mindedness, it backfired badly and was dim-witted in the extreme.
“When they go low, we go high,” is perhaps Michelle’s most famous mantra, but doing so can’t have been easy, and in her book she talked about how ill-prepared America was for its first black President.
Now, though, she is free of all that, and though well able for the razzmatazz that surrounds her book tour (crowded arenas, Q&As with Oprah), Michelle seems most at ease sitting around in small rooms talking to young people, especially girls.
The looks on the faces of the young African-American women she meets at community events speak volumes about the difference she is making, and has made.
“I’m doing what you’re doing,” she tells them, “I’m figuring out what I want to do.”
And when asked about how she adjusted to life after the presidency, she says: “So little of what I am happened in those eight years, so much more of who I am happened before.”
Airbrushed though this documentary is, it reminds you of a time when the White House was occupied by people who actually believed in something.
Donald Trump stands for so much of what is bad about America – isolationism, racism, arrogance, greed.
Maybe, just maybe, the Obamas stood for a lot of what is good.
'Becoming' arrives on Netflix on May 6.
The greatest risk with political memoirs is that they will be boring, sticking to the approved account. This book, though, pulls no punches. After years of maintaining the public stance American politics required of her, Michelle Obama is finally speaking out, and she's in control. Becoming, despite its awkward title, shares the former first lady's opinions on a range of issues, including her thoughts on racism, sexism, marriage, relationships and Donald Trump.
First Lady memoirs are nothing new, and even though their authors are finally unshackled from the constraints of the White House, some are certainly more revealing than others.