Film & TV

Michelle Obama’s Tall Tales

Former First Lady Michelle Obama signs copies of her memoir Becoming at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, Ill., November 13, 2018. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)
In her new Netflix documentary, the first lady exaggerates racial slights against her.

The cult of Michelle Obama is a puzzler. Thousands of strong, smart, independent women flock to every public appearance of, and hang on every platitude of, a woman whose sole notable accomplishment is her marriage. Lucking into marrying a celebrity is not usually posited to be the aim of feminism. No one can name a single other exceptional, or even unusual, achievement.

The adulation is real, though. Hillary Clinton’s book tour meant sad, clenched-jaw appearances at Barnes & Noble. Mrs. Obama’s took her to the Barclays Center and other arenas big enough for pro basketball games. There’s now a documentary about the book tour on Netflix. Guess who made it? Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. It’s called, as the book was, Becoming. It turns out the title is a bit ironic.

What the doc clarifies is the chief impetus behind Barack Obama’s rise to the White House. The Obamas created a haven for genteel, temperate, passive-aggressive anti-racism. This made them living saints rather than mere political figures. They offered black America pride, and white America, expiation. Their personal story rendered irrelevant Barack Obama’s lack of leadership experience in 2008. Democrats today must be wondering whether they should have gone with someone less holy and more effective, but they still feel good about their own racial enlightenment. As little as Obama brought them in policy, he gratified their need to feel that they were, to invoke an Obama cliché, on the right side of history. But the guilty-white-liberal fanbase longed for stories of how their icons personified racist oppression. Give us the drama, their acolytes pleaded. Tell us true tales of what it’s like to suffer in one’s black body. The problem is that neither of the Obamas really suffered, so they had to exaggerate.

Michelle Robinson was born in 1964 and grew up on the South Side of Chicago. She has some grievances with how the neighborhood changed over the years. “As black families like ours were moving into neighborhoods, white families were being scared away,” she explains in the film. “They were being told, sell your home quick . . . they fled further into the suburbs.” She adds, “My family, sadly, was one of those families, to some, who didn’t belong.”

Huh? The Robinson family didn’t move anywhere during the period in question. Michelle lived in that house on South Euclid from age one until she met Barack Obama. The families who felt they “didn’t belong” there were the ones that moved out. She points out sadly in the movie that her kindergarten class photo includes lots of white and black kids but her eighth-grade class, seen in a photo from about 1977, was almost entirely black.

Mrs. Obama doesn’t mention this in the movie, but in the book she is a bit more forthcoming about the merits of her neighborhood. “Walking home to Euclid Avenue in the evenings, I carried my house key wedged between two knuckles pointed outward, in case I needed to defend myself,” she writes. Maybe all those families who fled to the suburbs simply wanted to save their kids from getting mugged, or dying in one of the many fires (“inside our tight city grid, fire was almost a fact of life,” she writes) that plagued the area and killed several of Obama’s neighbors as a child. None of this is mentioned in the movie. Nor does the book or movie recount how Chicago’s crime rate doubled from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies, or allude to the 1968 riots in Chicago and elsewhere that made so many Americans lose faith in the cities. Today, thousands of black Chicagoans are moving out of the city. Are they racist too? For Obama fans, though, oversimplifying the past to reframe it as mainly a tale of white racism is an important component of reassuring themselves that they’re so much better than their prejudiced parents and grandparents.

Some of Mrs. Obama’s grievances center around Princeton, from which Michelle Robinson graduated in 1985 after attending a magnet high school for high achievers in Chicago. On her book tour, one of her many celebrity interlocutors prompts her: “You’re in high school. You are accomplished. You are class treasurer, do I remember that right?” This leads up to a story of how Michelle Robinson’s guidance counselor told her, “I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.” That statement “was a punch,” she recalls, and she’s still seething about it. The documentary frames it as racial slur, and follows it with much somber discussion about what it’s like to be an invisible black woman in America.

Was this a story of racism, though? In her book, Obama says, of the counselor, “I don’t remember her age or her race.” And she admits the counselor’s assessment was “probably based on a quick-glance calculus involving my grades and test scores.” Sounds as though her grades and test scores were unexceptional. If so, the counselor’s assessment was a reasonable one.

Obama tells us in the movie of suffering racial discomfort around Princeton, where “I was one of a handful of minority students. It was the first time in my life where I stood out like that.” She reports in her memoir that Princeton’s student body was “less than nine percent black,” but, since blacks were 12 percent of the U.S. population, Princeton was fairly representative of the country as a whole. It was her mostly black neighborhood back home that was atypical.

That brings us to the smoking gun of the movie, the one story Obama has to offer of being indisputably the victim of a racist insult. While discussing her college years, she says, “I learned that one of my roommates moved out because her mother was horrified that I was black. She felt her daughter was in danger. I wasn’t prepared for that.” The story she tells in the memoir is different: She learned in 2008, via a newspaper interview with an ex-roommate, that the reason the girl had moved out was because of the racist mom. At Princeton, Michelle Robinson didn’t suspect the reason the roommate had moved out and was evidently unbothered about it: “I’m happy to say I had no idea why,” she writes.

A snapshot the film shows us, of undergrad Michelle looking wan and depressed, presumably because of this racist slight, is misleading. “I wasn’t prepared for that”? She didn’t even know about it at the time. And if anything the racial tension went the other way: The roommate, a lesbian from New Orleans named Catherine Donnelly, very much liked Michelle, found her “really smart, charming, interesting and funny,” as she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008, but felt she couldn’t hang out with her because Michelle obviously preferred to socialize with the black students. A white kid can’t exactly approach a group of black students and say, “Can I join your clique?” Michelle acknowledges as much in her memoir, in which she describes self-segregating at a social center for black students. She says in the book that her white roommates were “perfectly nice” but “I wasn’t around the dorm enough to strike up any sort of deep friendship. I didn’t, in fact, have many white friends at all. In retrospect, I realize it was my fault as much as anyone’s.”

Playing up racism in the supposed service of pleading for more tolerance, love, and harmony is a bit . . . unbecoming. You might even call it shabby. Mrs. Obama labels the story she is telling “my version of reality,” a moment after we observe her husband backstage at one of her events. Barack Obama says, good-naturedly, “It’s fun listening to her tell these stories. Some of which, you know, part of me is like, nah . . . that’s not exactly how it happened.” He ought to know.

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