Movies

The Pauline Encouragement of Michelle Obama’s Becoming

Kathryn Freeman

In the opening moments of Becoming, the Netflix documentary about Michelle Obama's tour for her book of the same name, we are greeted by refrains from Kirk Franklin’s "A God Like You" as the former First Lady heads off to work. It is a fitting start because the doc goes on to reveal that—despite the designer clothes, the wealth, and position—the world's most admired woman is just like us.

Michelle Obama curates playlists based on her mood, she still gets teased by her older brother, and she is still figuring it out. Becoming gives us a behind-the-scenes look at her book tour and also a glimpse into her larger story, revealing the power of our God-given stories to transform ourselves and others.

Our stories create opportunities to build bridges, to enter into the story of another, and to see injustices we might have otherwise ignored. During one tour stop in Minneapolis-St. Paul, two separate book clubs—one consisting of White women and the other of Black women—come together to discuss the book. They are able to use the slow transformation of Obama's childhood neighborhood, which is detailed in the book’s pages, from a multiracial mixed-income community to a predominantly African-American, lower-class enclave to discuss "white flight" and subtle racism. Obama’s story leads one of the White women to reexamine the narrative of her own personal family history, realizing they had been a part of the white flight that transformed the South Side of Chicago. Obama's story provided a point of entry to a larger conversation about justice, inequality, and racism.

Our stories provide a point of connection and help build community. In one particularly poignant scene from a book-signing session, a young Black mother with tear-filled eyes thanks Obama for sharing her story of postpartum depression in her book. To the young mother who may have been struggling alone, wondering if she was alone, Obama meets her eyes and blesses her by letting her know she is not alone. You cannot possibly know all the ways you are similar to a person unless you get close to them. It is precisely in the mantra she brings to her book signings—"Take every person as they come up . . . look them in the eye, do not look beyond them, take in their story"—that Obama creates the space for community. For people, particularly Black women, who are not used to seeing themselves reflected in the wider culture, Becoming offers not just a point of pride, but a place of connection.

Becoming reminds us that our stories show others the way and expand the idea of who belongs. For all the early criticism she endured during Barack Obama's first White House campaign—that she was a liability, unrelatable, and an "angry Black woman"—the size and diversity of the crowds she attracts on tour are a testament to how her story continues to resonate. Many young women of color marvel that the former First Lady knows what it is to be unsure, to be misunderstood, to be underestimated, to be insecure, to wonder how long until you are told you do not belong in the room. Michelle Obama meets their questions with kindness and wisdom. She reminds them she started as the daughter of working-class parents Frazier and Marian Robinson and the younger sister of Craig on the South Side of Chicago.

When Shayla, a young Black woman, hears the similarities between her own family and the South Side Robinsons, she realizes it is possible to overcome her own insecurities. Later, as Shayla rides in the back of the bus dreaming about the future, the documentary skillfully shifts to Obama in the back of her car pondering her own future. Obama's story expands the idea of what is possible for others, revealing that counseling can lead to a thriving marriage, that you can go to an Ivy League school, that you can reinvent yourself after an earth-shattering event, and that you too could find yourself as First Lady of the United States.

Becoming reveals the power of our God-given stories to transform ourselves and others.

In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul tells the church at Thessalonica that he loved them so much he "delighted to share . . . not only the gospel of God but [his life] as well." The Thessalonians knew Paul's story and he knew theirs. They observed his upright and blameless conduct during his time among them. The Thessalonians knew of Paul's suffering and persecution in Philippi, and when they experienced the same suffering, they became imitators of their leader. Paul assures them that their story of enduring under persecution had brought them renown from churches in Macedonia and Achaia.

The gospel is sufficient, but our stories help put flesh to the living word. Paul probably shared Jesus' words about having trouble in the world, but his story of persecution helped the Thessalonians truly understand what it meant to be faithful while enduring pain. Paul's story helped them connect gospel truth to the reality of their situation. Enduring seems less daunting when someone you know has gone first. And when that someone knows your story and still tells you that you too can make it, you tend to have more faith in your ability.

In her book, Obama also emphasizes the power "in allowing [ourselves] to be known and heard, in owning our own unique story." She recognizes the transformative power of story because even as she tells hers, she encourages us to tell ours. Our story, even as it evolves, even as it is imperfect, is the thing we will always have and it is the thing God can use to transform the lives of those around us.

In the final verses of 1 Thessalonians 5, as Paul closes his letter, he gives some instructions for holy and blameless living and reassures the church that "the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it." Our stories are not ours to hold; we can never know their power without sharing them. God has given us each a story, pieces of a tapestry that the Faithful One is weaving and has been weaving since creation. Only he knows what is being made and how all the people and moments fit together. Part of our becoming his masterpiece is sharing and connecting our threads with the threads of others.

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