The Big Problem With ‘Becoming’ and the Obamas’ Netflix Deal
Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions “gives us co-optation at its most refined,” writes Cassie da Costa.
The upcoming Michelle Obama book-tour documentary, Becoming, presents a point of confirmation about what we might expect from the Obamas’ post-White House project. Namely, that it is primed to inspire individuals to integrate themselves into the halls of power rather than seek to undo them.
The Obamas’ partnership with Netflix through their company Higher Ground Productions has produced two critically-acclaimed documentaries: American Factory and Crip Camp, with the former winning the Best Documentary Oscar. Together with Becoming, these documentaries present a kind of picture of the progress the Obama brand is primed to promote: the films may present the seeds of radical ideas, but those ideas are then made acceptable to some coalition of people in power, allowing the films to end on soaring notes of hope. The Obamas’ Higher Ground gives us co-optation at its most refined.
Much of this filmic vision hinges on perseverance and personality, on the acquisition of rights rather than the overthrowing of systems. And so the onus is on regular people to make institutions work for them, as the Obamas have done themselves. In fact, Becoming exposes the aspects of American Factory and Crip Camp, two films I generally liked, that subconsciously troubled me long after viewing. Namely, that these films all present an arc of progress that could be fortified by the government—if only the Democrats were in power. This isn’t in fact true (Democratic administrations have been obstacles to progress just like the Republicans ones, though the Democrats are usually much quieter about it), but it's convenient propaganda for the moment.
Toward the end of Becoming, Michelle blames the “black community” or “our people,” as she refers to them, for the results of the 2016 election: “After all that work,” she says in a voiceover, “they couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.” She even prefaces her admission by saying she doesn’t blame the people who voted for Trump. This callous moment is mostly unsurprising: Both Michelle and Barack have a bootstrap ethos, only polished with the latest self-help-meets-activism language. Still, it’s bizarre that Michelle makes such an ignorant statement without trying to explain herself—expecting, perhaps, that viewers will read her book to hear her full take. But this kind of formulation—that black communities are too complacent, lazy, uncaring to have power—only serves to fortify the establishment power of the Obamas, Clintons, and even Bushes and Trumps of the world: Follow the already-powerful and you will be rewarded.
In Becoming, Michelle’s sentiment about the 2016 election makes clear that her own middle class and Ivy League experience—though of course one that has included both present-tense and generationally-lingering effects of racism—has had the effect of rendering an easy and frankly anti-black narrative as true (or convenient) for her. If black people are indeed just too ignorant or short-sighted to vote when it really counts, then the Obamas’ current project of inspiring individuals into action within the current system has value. But if there’s a more complex and historically rigorous way of looking at the act of nonvoting (in its various forms and motivations), then Higher Ground and Michelle’s own “go high” ethos starts to look like the foundations of yet another distorting institution.
Throughout her book tour, Michelle meets with groups of young students of color who want to know how they can overcome adversity, as the mostly empty phrase goes. She speaks with a small group of Native students who say they have grown up on reservations. One student asks her how they can deal with the presence of the fervent Trump supporters they attend school with. Basically, this student is asking, how do I exist in a society that wants me dead, disappeared? Michelle simply tells the group of Native students that they need to focus on getting their education—hunker down, rise above. Higher ground, indeed.
You understand why these students would look up to Michelle—against some (but not all) odds, she secured her ticket onto the success train, and has a relatable story to tell about her journey there. But these roundtable discussions in the Becoming documentary—while potentially inspirational to impressionable young students who have not yet experienced for themselves the darkness of such a worldview—are depressing to those of us who got on the success train, too, only to realize that no matter how shiny and well-appointed the vehicle was, it was running people over.