“I’m from the Southside of Chicago. That tells you as much about me as you need to know.”
That’s one of many mic-dropping quotes you’ll hear while watching the new Netflix original documentary feature, Becoming, starring the lawyer, bestselling author, Ivy League graduate, film producer, first Black first lady of the United States, your hero’s hero, and now, Netflix documentary star.
You often hear Black and brown women refer to Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama as our forever first lady. Some people may wonder why the connection is so strong. Well, for one, she has a very unique way of letting the world know that she is us and we are her. As Oprah Winfrey simply stated, “She made us always feel like the White House was really our house, the people’s house.”
Two years after leaving the White House, we all—more than 10 million copies sold to date—made a beeline to the nearest bookstore to get a close account of the intimate and inspiring stories along her journey in Becoming.
And if the book wasn’t enough, we all soon learned that we could get a little closer as she embarked on a 34-city arena book tour where she made talking to more than 20,000 people feel like she was having an intimate conversation with you.
We all left the arena wanting more. And little did we know, Bronx-born filmmaker and cinematographer Nadia Hallgren, whose résumé includes the Oscar-nominated and Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner Trouble the Water and CNN’s Girl Rising, was working on giving us just that.
ESSENCE had a chance to catch up with Hallgren, who never imagined that she would be directing a film starring our forever first lady. But one phone call from the Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions, gave the already successful award-winning DP the opportunity to sit in front of Mrs. Obama and tell her why she should be the one to capture the true essence of who she was, who she is, and who she’s becoming.
ESSENCE: Nadia, this is truly an exciting time for you. Congratulations! How did you land the project with the first lady of the United States of America?
Nadia Hallgren: You said that, and it gave me chills. It’s still not even real to me. So, I was sitting at my kitchen table the way that I am now, and I got a call from Priya Swaminathan, who is one of the heads of Higher Ground. And she tells me that Mrs. Obama is getting ready to go out on this book tour and that they were kind of floating the idea of documenting it. Not being certain yet where that footage would live or if it would go anywhere other than her archives, but they were thinking about it. So, after a couple of phone calls, I get an email that says you have an appointment at the Office of Michelle and Barack Obama on this day.
That had to be a surreal moment.
Definitely. I was like, What? That is crazy, I can’t believe this is happening. But at the same time there was no guarantee I was going to get this job and I didn’t want to be super disappointed. So, I was like, Just prepare and be yourself. That’s all you can do. I had three weeks to prepare before the actual date.
How do you prepare for an interview with the first lady?
[Laughter] Right. I basically read and listened to every word that was out there on Mrs. Obama in print, and this was of course before the book came out, so I didn’t have that resource. And I went back and read both of the President’s books. I just tried to steep myself in their world and their thinking as much as possible.
My dreams weren’t always encouraged by a lot of people. I hope that [this film] could be a sense of inspiration for others who have these very sort of big ideas for their own lives and that nothing is impossible.
So you get to their office in Washington D.C., and what happens next?
I walk into her office and she had this very beautifully lit room with artwork on the wall and she’s sitting in the far corner. She stands up and she’s very, very tall. She starts walking towards me, and we kind of meet halfway in the middle of the room. I extend my hand out to give her a handshake and in my nervousness our fingers get weirdly intertwined with each other. I was like, Oh goodness, I’ve already messed this up. And we both started laughing and she says, ‘I’m a hugger.’ And I’m like, ‘Me too!’ She gave me this huge hug. She knows everyone who meets her is like, ‘Oh my God.’ So, that kind of really help calm me down, and then we just sat down and had a really great conversation for 30 minutes.
How was that conversation?
We talked about all sorts of things—our families, our moms, where we come from. And you know, I think we must’ve really connected because by the end of the conversation, she was like, ‘Let’s do this!’ And that was it.
So you go on tour with her and become BFFs. Is our forever first lady as amazing as we all imagine?
Absolutely. Getting to know Mrs. Obama the way that I did was just an incredible experience. And the more time I spent with her and the more I got to know her, the more she just revealed herself to be this incredibly warm, thoughtful, and caring person. One thing that stood out for me right away was the amount of effort that she puts into other people—making me feel comfortable, making people she meets feel comfortable. She thinks about other people’s experience in a really thoughtful way. She demonstrated that over and over and over again.
Was that important for you to show in the documentary?
Yes, I really wanted that to come across in this film. When I was having these experiences, I was just like I have to figure out how to make the audience feel the way that I’m feeling right now. What this was like for me is the thing that I wanted the audience to feel as much as much possible. So, that was always a driving force in the decisions that I made when we were out filming.
During this project, what was one thing that surprised you about Mrs. Obama?
How funny she is. I definitely did not expect that. I mean, the film is very funny and her and her family naturally have an incredible sense of humor. One of the hardest things for me when I was filming was containing my own laughter so that the camera wouldn’t be shaking, and I could be focused on what I was doing because it was really that funny.
Some people may be surprised, but this film is not about Michelle and Barack Obama. You inserted him when it made sense, but outside of that, it was about Michelle Obama—before, during, and after the White House. I imagine that was on purpose.
[It was] definitely a creative decision not to include President Obama in the film in more of a way than we did. This was the story of Mrs. Obama going on her book tour from her perspective, and telling her own story in her words. And so, it was really important to me that we did that. She tells her story so wonderfully that it didn’t feel like it was something that we needed to do.
In the film we hear Mrs. Obama say to a group of young ladies, ‘So little of who I am happened in those eight years. So much more of who I was happened before.’ That was a very important quote.
Yes, it set up what the film would be about. Because as we know, Mrs. Obama didn’t come out of nowhere. This wonderful woman that everyone loves, it was a whole life in-the-making and a whole set of experiences that built up to the moment where she stepped on stage as the first lady. It was really important for me that we understood how that life becomes what it is—and it’s through community, it’s through love, it’s through parents who fought so hard to make sure their children were educated.
It was really important to me and also to Mrs. Obama that a full range of her story be looked at because I think it’s also important to know that her life is not without its challenges, and pretty significant challenges at that. There were so many things that came into her life and experiences that got her to where she is. I thought it was really important for us all to understand how everything happened.
What is Nadia most proud of with this project?
Wow. That’s a great question that I actually haven’t thought about. It all happened so quickly. I am proud of where I came from and where my dreams have taken me. My dreams weren’t always encouraged by a lot of people. I hope that it could be a sense of inspiration for others who have these very sort of big ideas for their own lives and that nothing is impossible. So, I think that makes me proud—you know, that I didn’t give up. Every day is hard. It’s hard what we’re going through right now, it’s hard to make a film. And not giving up, I’m most proud of that.