The documentary filmmaker hits the road with Michelle Obama in Becoming.
In Nadia Hallgren’s Becoming, director and subject come together to craft a powerful portrait of one of the most universally beloved public figures of our time. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, the documentary chronicles the former first lady’s national tour promoting her 2018 memoir. The trip was an opportunity for the country to reflect on Mrs. Obama’s life and work. For Hallgren, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.The filmmaker had already established herself as a cinematographer with projects like Trouble the Water — the Oscar-nominated and Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary about Hurricane Katrina — and CNN’s We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World. Despite the breadth of that experience, traveling with Mrs. Obama every day proved a perspective-shifting adventure. “I came out of this a different person,” Hallgren explains. “There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to do this, and one message that Mrs. Obama spreads to the world is that we are stronger than we think we are. That resonated with me personally. It gave me a tremendous amount of strength to be able to make this film.” Ultimately, Hallgren actualized an intimate account of the former first lady’s life that is likely to endure for decades to come. Tre’vell Anderson spoke with the filmmaker about how the documentary came to be, and about the legacy she hopes it will leave.
Tre’vell Anderson: How did you get this job of a lifetime?
Nadia Hallgren: I’m sitting at my kitchen table, and the phone rings. It’s Priya Swaminathan, who runs Higher Ground Productions. She says to me, “Michelle Obama is getting ready to go on this worldwide book tour, and we’re floating the idea of documenting it. We don’t know yet if it may be a film, or if the footage would be something that lives in Mrs. Obama’s archive — but is this something that you’re interested in?” I was like, “Absolutely!”
. . . I want an audience to feel the way I feel right now. I want everyone to feel like they’re riding shotgun with Michelle Obama in her motorcade.”
How would you say your prior work prepared you to tell this particular story?
NH: I have spent over 15 years as a documentary cinematographer. A huge reason why I was equipped to make this film was that there is an understanding when you are rolling with Michelle Obama that things happen very quickly; there could potentially be times when a very small footprint is needed. My background as a cinematographer, as well as working on super-low-budget docs, meant that I could one-person-band it when I had to. I was able to direct; I was able to shoot and sometimes do my own sound. In looking back at some of my other work, I am really interested in identity, what makes people who they are, and what compels people to take on the things in the world that they do. Having spent a career thinking deeply about those things prepared me to direct Becoming.
Could you describe the experience of interviewing her family members?
NH: There were times when I was laughing so hard while I was filming her and Craig, her brother, because they’re so funny. I was trying to hold the camera still so that I didn’t ruin the shot. . . . And [Michelle’s mother] Mrs. Robinson is the realest person I’ve ever met. She’s super practical. As she says, there are millions of Craigs and Michelle and Barack Obamas all over the South Side of Chicago. She does not think her kids are special. She reminds them of that. It’s this wonderful quality that she has.
When the Obamas were elected, some people thought that we were in a post-racial society. Some of the unrest that we see in the streets right now is demonstrating that we weren’t quite there. In what ways was it important for you to incorporate that aspect of Michelle Obama’s story into the film?
NH: To this idea that we had entered a post-racial society: Many of us were having a completely different experience under the Obama administration in terms of police violence against Black folks and all the other systemic issues that we have faced as a country. I had gotten an advance copy of Mrs. Obama’s book, and I told myself, I’m going to read this book, and any time I get emotional, I’m going to highlight it — whether it’s funny, whether it makes me cry. I remember coming upon a passage where she talks about the experience that she had seeing all these young people being murdered by the police. She mentions Michael Brown and other individuals. She says, “We ourselves were a provocation.” I remember reading that line, putting the book down, and weeping. In that moment I was like, This has to be in the film because it’s the experience of all Black people in America. Whether you are on the streets of Ferguson or you are in the White House, this is what we know to be true. So in this moment, when this country is on the streets protesting and responding to more violence against Black people, understanding Mrs. Obama’s perspective is really interesting.
I’m so moved by the response that people have had to this film, people all over the world that I’ve gotten notes from . . . that see themselves in Mrs. Obama’s story.”
Is there any lasting message or takeaway that you hope audiences have from the film before we go?
NH: It’s a film of the moment, but I also see it as a historical film. So, in 25 years people can watch this film and understand something different than they did. I think it also speaks differently to different people, different age ranges. I encourage people to go back and watch it again. There’s so much to learn from Mrs. Obama’s experience. I’m so moved by the response that people have had to this film, people all over the world that I’ve gotten notes from — young people in India and in Kenya and all these places — that see themselves in Mrs. Obama’s story. They say they looked up the director, and they saw me, and they were like, “You look like me. I can’t believe you made this film.” There’s so much goodness and love in this project, and I want people to be able to draw as much from that as they can.
on Netflix now.