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Michelle Obama Won’t Save Us

“Becoming,” a new documentary, obliquely reveals the ways in which this country did the former First Lady wrong.

Isaac Palmisano/Netflix

When the teenage Michelle Obama told her guidance counselor that she intended to apply to an Ivy League school, the counselor replied that she wasn’t sure Michelle was “Princeton material.” In her bestselling memoir, Becoming, Obama (née Robinson) acknowledged that she could not remember any more of the details of this moment, like the counselor’s face or race or outfit: “I deliberately and almost instantly blotted this experience out.”

All of Becoming is like this: Obama presents her memories to the reader carefully and selectively, shading over some elements of the past while playing up others. The anecdote appears again in different form in a new Netflix documentary, also called Becoming, that follows the former First Lady as she toured America on her arena-size book tour in 2018–19, interviewed onstage by luminaries like Stephen Colbert and Oprah Winfrey.

There’s nothing melancholy about the stage shows, which were massive and consistently sold out. So where the guidance counselor anecdote is a sad and reflective moment in the book, onstage, the counselor becomes a punch line: The future Michelle Obama not only went to Princeton and Harvard, of course, but also became one of the most popular and inspiring public figures on the face of the earth. It’s obvious who won.

Or is it? Whether Obama recalls the story onstage in a glittering pantsuit or in the quieter register of memoir, her intended meaning remains the same: Young people, Obama believes, should never waste their time waiting for an unjust world to treat them fairly. She wants people to see that “failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result,” and that it was exactly that “suggestion of failure” that the counselor was trying to plant inside young Michelle. If she could resist it, maybe you can, too.

The whole Obama methodology is leading by example (going high where others go low, and so on), but here’s a new rub. As the documentary follows Obama speaking with various book clubs and student groups, a college student from an American Indian reservation asks her how he should go about believing in himself while surrounded by MAGA hats in class every day. It’s a provocative question, and one of only a few moments that force the viewer to remember the current administration. To the teen, Obama repeats her message of self-reliance and resilience, but something else flashes behind her eyes.

That something else appears again when she recalls the extraordinary day in 2015 when Barack Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at a memorial for the victims of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in the morning, and the White House celebrated marriage equality in rainbow lights in the evening. Michelle Obama tells us how she and her daughter Malia sneaked outside that night, needing to share in some public joy after all that terrible grief. The pair made it to a corner of the celebration outside and let jubilation soften their pain. But they did it in secret.

Though she smiles all the way through Becoming, you don’t have to look that hard to see the anger underneath. On the one hand, it feels good to watch Obama relax a little, to see her dress differently (more jeans offstage, fewer regulation blowouts) and get out from under the thousand-ton pressure that weighed on her family while “Dad” was in office. But it is also frustrating to see Obama stick so closely to one, relatively rigid version of her life story.

It’s almost as if the book was her final concession to self-mythologizing, to existing as a bit of public property, and now she’s done. We see the house in the South Shore that Obama told us about in the book but learn nothing new about it. We see her mother’s kind face, hear her brother’s laughing voice, and see photographs of her much-missed father but, again, learn nothing much new.

Becoming reminds us what America did to Michelle Obama and her family. Old footage of Obama speaking at her husband’s campaign appearances shows a woman who smiled a little less but spoke spontaneously, more authentically. “I was beginning to be effective,” she recalls in the movie of the 2008 campaign trail, “and so they went after me like they went after a candidate.” And after she made a certain unlucky comment—“For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country”—that was seized upon as evidence of her alleged hatred of America, Obama never spoke off-script again.

The result of the abuse she endured was an ambivalent kind of flowering. Michelle Obama, former straight-A student, star lawyer, and hospital administrator, now became a communications virtuoso, as she applied all of her signature competence to the goal of making her husband president. She got a stylist, and good scriptwriters. At the same time that she nailed every beat of that performance—all the right clothes, the right facial expressions—America could watch Obama shutting down in real time. It’s not that she got smaller or less charming, but she donned a public image like a hermit crab dons a shell. She became a shinier, harder, less genuine version of herself.

Summoned on camera to explain her “proud of my country” remarks, Obama said, “I am proud of this country. And I am proud of my husband, but we’ve learned a lot this year; we’ve learned that when the bar is set, sometimes it moves on you. Right when you get there—it moves!”

This documentary is better understood as an appendix to her memoir—a chance for fans who couldn’t get tour tickets to join in on the fun—rather than as a standalone movie. There is a strong sense in Becoming that Obama has told us all that she will ever tell us, and that is that. Her guardedness is the legacy of right-wing America’s behavior, and as the credits rolled on Becoming, I had the dejected feeling that this country, now in such agony under Donald Trump, is only reaping what it sowed.

Becoming reinforces the strong impression that Obama has no intention of going near politics again. In an interview with Conan O’Brien on his podcast last year, she said that she was “not interested in politics,” only in rebuilding a normal life. The sad, unintended moral of Becoming is that if this country never sees a President Michelle Obama, it is our own fault.