"I am the former first lady of the United States and also the descendant of slaves. It's important to keep that truth right there."
It feels like a lifetime ago that we watched the elegant Michelle Obama take her first steps into the White House. Beside her was her husband Barack, the first black president of the United States. That moment was a beacon of hope for black communities across the globe, as a man from the south side of Chicago assumed the most powerful position in the world.
Now, 11 years on, as we face somewhat Troubling Times, Michelle remains a tireless advocate for the betterment of young women. The publication of her 2018 memoir, Becoming, was a cultural moment, offering an insight into her background and journey to becoming the matriarch of black womanhood.
Now, a new documentary feature film of the same name goes behind the scenes with Michelle on her 34-city book tour across the United States (with a brief touchdown at London's O2 Arena). In Netflix's Becoming we see Michelle chatting warmly with staff, family members and security, as well as A-list celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon and the starstruck fans who arrive at her book signings in tears of disbelief.
Becoming also takes us to Michelle's hometown on the south side of Chicago, where we get an intimate glimpse into her childhood and her relationship with her family. Michelle speaks candidly about her late father's battle with multiple sclerosis, about meeting and marrying Barack – "Trifling black man, late on the first date," she chuckles – and adjusting to her new life in the White House and, later, the hard blow of leaving those eight years behind: "I sobbed on the plane for 30 minutes."
The documentary takes us back through the ugly times and the vilification Michelle faced as first lady, when right-wing critics labelled her an "angry black woman" with a "chip on her shoulder" – a lazy trope with which black women are unfortunately all too familiar. Of the challenges of being the first black family in the White House, Michelle remembers: "Barack and I, through this presidency, through all the lies and stuff they said about us, all we could do is wake up every day and do our jobs, and let our jobs and our lives speak for itself."
The obstacles she faced growing up as a black woman from "a typical working class community" are not easy for Michelle to relive nor for the viewer to absorb. She recounts the time her college roommate moved out because her mother found out she was black and recalls the moment her guidance counsellor at her prestigious, predominantly white school told her that she wasn't smart enough for an Ivy League university: "She decided that my wish to go to Princeton was thinking too big. I was reaching too high and ... she told me, 'I don't think you're Princeton material'. The nerve!" But as Michelle continues: "She was wrong!"
Throughout her time as first lady, during her work in the years afterwards and in Becoming – both the book and the documentary – Michelle has established her mission. She wants young women, especially black women, to know their worth. "I'm coming down from the mountain top to tell every young person that is poor, working class and was told – regardless of the colour of your skin – that you don't belong: don't listen to them," she says. Those at the top already? She raises an eyebrow. "Don't even know how they got to those seats."
The Obamas' two daughters, Sasha and Malia, make an extremely rare appearance in the film to praise their mother.
"I'm excited for her to be proud of what she's done," says Sasha, who has just finished her first year at the University of Michigan. "I think that's the most important thing for a human to do, is to be proud of themselves." Malia, who is a student at Harvard, adds that her mother is "no longer facing the same scrutiny – being able to let all of that leave your mind creates so much space."
Describing themselves now as "empty nesters", the Obamas are spending their time investing in future leaders. "The future of our nation is up to the next generation but they need some encouragement." As Michelle reflects on the last decade, she's clear that she has a lot of catching up to do. Her life, she says, is "starting to become mine again. There's another chapter out there."
Michelle Obama, in all her brilliant glory, is reclaiming her time – and we can't wait to see what she does next.
Becoming is available to watch on Netflix.