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.