First Ladies

PG & M, 6 x 40-minute episodes

5 Stars

Streaming, SBS On Demand



Review by © Jane Freebury


A mixed-race guy, brought up in Hawaii, he’s gotta be weird. It’s how Michelle Obama recalls what went through her mind as she met the man who would become her husband and subsequently the 44th American President. When Barack arrived at the Chicago law firm where she worked, Michelle was actually his boss, an associate and mentor, and he a new recruit.

First Ladies, an excellent new television documentary series from CNN, begins with a dynamic profile of the first Black American woman in the role, who is an enduring role model for young women everywhere. The docuseries is written  by Kim Duke, Katharine English and Liz Mermin, who directed two episodes each.

A ‘strange kind of sidecar’ to the President, as Michelle put it

How would you make sense of the role of First Lady? You are a ‘strange kind of sidecar’ to the President, as Michelle puts it, and there’s no rule book. It’s up to you.

Each episode of First Ladies is a beguiling mix of rich material, a surprising and rewarding experience. There are interviews with the subject herself or her children and grandchildren if she is no longer living, and with historians and other experts, and former political advisors. All of these direct-to-camera scenes are brief and to the point and exceptionally well-edited.

Certain key moments are brought to life with re-enactments, typically filmed from behind the actors’ backs so that their faces are never seen. The scenes are a real enhancement to the dramatic moments inherent in the material.

Voice-over is used sparingly. It is delivered by the actor Robin Wright who, unforgettable in her role in the Netflix political drama House of Cards, is a cheeky choice for the role.

The women who feature in this season are First Ladies of the modern age. Nancy Reagan, Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lady Bird Johnson.

Others like Barbara and Laura Bush and Rosalynne Carter may be in the pipeline for a second season. Let’s hope so, because the series so far delivers great insight into the individual presidencies and their moment in history. If there are plans to include Melania Trump at a later date, insights into the woman who took little advantage of the opportunity the role afforded will be eagerly awaited.

If it seems of late that glamour has been integral to the role of First Lady, this appears to be more the exception than the rule.  Jackie Kennedy was a style icon, of course, but she is remembered for being part of a particular political moment of hope and optimism too, before the assassin’s bullets of 1963.

Two for the price of one, Bill Clinton once said but First Ladies suggests that began some time ago

And there are surprises in Jackie’s story, too. People remember that she, fluent in French, charmed her hosts during an official visit to Paris with her husband, but who knew about the last letter that she wrote from the White House? It was a personal missive to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, urging him to continue the gains that he and Kennedy had made together on nuclear disarmament.

Michelle Obama in First Ladies. Courtesy CNN

Her successor, Lady Bird Johnson, Texan to the core, is even more of a revelation. She took on the role of First Lady after Kennedy’s assassination shocked the nation, with Lyndon Johnson hastily inaugurated as the new President on the flight from Dallas back to Washington.

Trauma marked the rest of President Johnson’s single term. It was marked by acute political unrest, such as the assassination of political leaders like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the ongoing Vietnam War.

Lady Bird was a remarkable team player who supported her husband, a President plagued by self-doubt and depression. The presidency, their presidency, achieved much, especially its legacy in social reform such as the passing into law of Kennedy’s stalled civil rights bill.

If it’s a cliché to say that people re-invent their roles, it seems absolutely true of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D., She made a unique impression with her activism and vision for social justice, and was, all the while, a mother of six.

Eleanor was a journalist before becoming First Lady. In the White House she invited people in need to write to her, and they did. Some began their letters with ‘Dear Mrs President’.

Two for the price of one, Bill Clinton once said. First Ladies suggests that began some time ago.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 August 2021