On the official White House website, one can find detailed bios of America’s 42 first ladies. Most open with some variation on the phrase “So-and-So was the wife of President Such-and-Such” — e.g., “Mary Ann Todd Lincoln was the wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.” But not Michelle Obama’s. Her entry begins, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is a lawyer, writer, and the wife of the 44th President, Barack Obama.”
Lawyer first, writer second and then wife.
Most of the audiences who check out Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming” on Netflix will be tuning in out of interest in her role as “the rock of our family,” as Barack described her at his inauguration — or else as “a Black woman to be admired,” to quote Ava DuVernay, introducing 2017’s awestruck essay collection “The Meaning of Michelle.” But it is a different identity, that of “writer,” which fuels director Nadia Hallgren’s softball portrait of the former FLOTUS.
Between 2008 and 2016, Michelle Obama made it a priority to address and encourage the nation’s young people, and her commitment to that mission continues to this day. Challenging the idea of affirmative action, the Harvard Law School grad — who is a descendant of slaves — tells Gayle King in one of her many celebrity-hosted Q&As, “I have been at probably every powerful table there is in the world. … I am coming down from the mountaintop to tell every young person that is poor and working-class and has been told, regardless of the color of your skin, that you don’t belong, ‘Don’t listen to them!’ They don’t even know how they got at those seats.” By speaking truth to power, she motivates those who recognize themselves in her, who identify with her story.
“I was just waking up to the truth of who we can be, so ready to assume the worst in people,” she explains. Barack Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, has developed his own antagonistic strategy for dealing with the press — which, while hardly “fake,” is so far from objective or unbiased that Trump’s accusation serves to justify his own unfiltered stream of falsehoods. Of course, Michelle Obama famously had a different philosophy: “When they go low, we go high” — a mantra that was not only classy but necessary.
Michelle Obama could say the same: Every president (and FLOTUS) must deal with being criticized on a daily basis, and yet, by virtue of being the first black first family to occupy the White House, the Obamas were held to a higher standard. Barack Obama has been consistently diplomatic about this point — with “diplomatic” being the nature of the office until now — but Michelle is now free to speak somewhat more freely about the racism they both encountered.
This was no small sacrifice for a driven young woman from the South Side of Chicago, whose parents had pushed her to excellence (while showing a clear preference for her older brother Craig Robinson, she claims). Her achievements were a way of emerging from his shadow, although later, as First Lady, she was expected to remain in Barack’s. No more. The “Becoming” book tour represents Michelle Obama’s coming-out moment, a chance to reassert her own identity. Now Barack can be the guest star — the Jay-Z to her Beyoncé.
If the words “hope” and “progress” and “change” effectively positioned his presidential run, then “Becoming” seems a perfectly fitting label for Michelle’s own journey. The book reflects on how she became first lady; the film suggests she’s still growing as a person, empowering us to do the same.
For more on Michelle Obama’s Becoming, click here.