Becoming, the Netflix documentary about Michelle Obama, was one of the streaming site’s Top 10 films when it was released a few weeks ago. Now another American First Lady, Hillary Clinton, has her own docuseries – Hillary.
The four-hour show, consisting of interviews given by Clinton to documentary maker Nanette Burstein, explores all of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life, from her activism in the 1960s, her marriage to ex-US President Bill Clinton, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and her unsuccessful attempt to become US President in 2016.
Hillary puts forward the theory that the next generation of female leaders were galvanised by her election loss into standing for, and voting in, the Congress elections of 2018; with a record-breaking 103 women, including activists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, elected or re-elected to the House of Representatives.
“I know what I mean to many women, I hear it almost every day, someone will say it to me,” Clinton told BBC News. “It’s a heavy responsibility.”
“I’ve tried to make my own decisions in keeping with who I am and what I stand for, but we still need role models, guides along the trail, ‘if someone can do it then I can do it’ – that sort of mentality. I’m very aware of it.”
Becoming documents former first lady Michelle Obama’s recent international book tour, as well as her meeting young African American women to encourage them in their ambitions. According to the film’s director, Nadia Hallgren, she had “never seen anything like that energy before.”
“What women seem to identify with,” Hallgren adds, “was just her stories of being told you can’t do something or being constantly underestimated throughout life. This idea that if you’re a woman, if you’re not male, if you’re not white, if you don’t tick all these boxes, that you don’t belong at that table.
“I think that there is a huge need and hunger worldwide for stories like hers. Hearing Mrs Obama talk about obstacles that she encountered throughout her life, and being able to reflect on the now, taught me so much about my own life and obstacles that I’ve encountered.”
Nanette Burstein, the director of Hillary, agrees that the visibility of the former first ladies is important, “particularly for the young”.
“When I was in my 20s, and wanting to be a director, Secretary Clinton was just coming in as first lady – and as a very different first lady, one who would take on important initiatives such as healthcare. To me, as a young woman, that was very inspiring and life-changing.
“One of the reasons I said I’d tackle this story is so that people can understand what that means to a young woman.”
“It’s also joyous to know both these ‘former first lady’ films are being made by women,” points out Mia Bays, the director of Birds Eye View, a not-for-profit organisation that centres on the female perspective in film.
“I think Becoming in particular helps us reflect on why Michelle Obama is such an inspirational figure and necessary for the world to lift even higher – especially right now.”
By contrast, for women, Hillary Clinton has historically been a more divisive figure – in 2016, the Edison National Election poll found that though overall 52% of women voters had chosen Clinton, 64% of non-college educated white women had voted for Donald Trump.
Clinton says she’s aware of the dislike she’s provoked.
“It’s wonderful to be liked, but if that’s all you want, you’re not there for the right reasons. There are scenes in this documentary I had forgotten.
“I am fighting for healthcare, and people were burning my effigy. People got really riled up about it, they disliked me and didn’t like what I was doing. Often if you’re not liked, it’s because you’re taking a stand.
“When a woman takes a very public stand in a controversial arena you just have to be prepared that you’re going to be criticised and if you’re not prepared, then don’t do it,” she says. “I’m very proud of the work I have done and the stands I have taken, and I don’t have any regrets about that.”
Clinton agrees that the documentary is a way of “setting the record straight”.
“There is so much misinformation about me, so many ridiculous stories about me – to have my life portrayed in a way I recognise is quite a good step forward,” she advocates.
But can these kinds of documentaries ever be entirely impartial? Becoming was produced by the Obamas’ production company Higher Ground. While Hillary was granted 35 hours of interviews with Clinton, so was Burstein ever going to be able to be critical?
‘You can never rest’
“I understood that I could be criticised for how I portrayed this story,” Nanette Burstein replies. “I knew no matter what I did there would potentially be criticism. So I felt that I just needed to research as much as I could and be as honest as I could.”
Clinton is adamant that women continue to need positive encouragement into leadership – whether in the media, industry or in politics.
“I think by telling my story, you can see a lot of change, but you can see how reluctant it is and how much of a backlash there is,” she says.
“You can never rest, and it gets exhausting to be honest. It’s like, ‘wait a minute, we knocked down that barrier and we repealed that law – why is this still so hard?’ Why do people still not appreciate or respect the role and the opportunities women have to contribute?
“So you know, the struggle continues.”
All episodes of Hillary available from 11 June on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NowTV. Becoming is available on Netflix.
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