Southside With You, written and directed by Richard Tanne, is the new film about The Obamas. Specifically, it’s about Michelle and Barack’s first date. The film is filtered in realistic nostalgia, with long driving scenes showing the quiet activity of poor suburban Chiacago life. The script is the epitome of theatrical, at least as far as the Greeks defined theatre; Aristotle believed that a play should span at most 24-hours. The film starts in the morning, as Michelle readies herself to be picked up by Barack, and ends with him dropping her back off at home that night.
The soundtrack is a nice fit, incorporating black 80s artists especially. The cinematography is slow-paced, with lingering closeup shots of Barack’s face while driving his car; it’s almost as if the filmmakers couldn’t believe just how much Parker Summers (Barack) looks like young Barack Obama (it’s weirdly uncanny) and they kept forgetting to call cut. Joking aside, I didn’t find myself checking my watch during these long shots, merely wondering why they were necessary over and over again. The filmmakers playfully drop hints about the future that is our present, one example coming when Michelle teases Barack about running for office one day Barack shrugs it off.
Michelle Robinson (now Obama) was a young lawyer assigned to mentor first-year law student, Barack Obama. He was studying at Harvard and she had graduated Harvard Law School before joining a big law firm in Chicago, where she was born and raised.
The film, according to Tanne, was assembled based on public record–interviews and biographies–and filled in by imagination. Tanne insinuated that he read basically everything having to do with the Obamas in preparing his script.
The film takes place on one long day, following the future President and First Lady’s first “date.” Date is in quotes because the character Michelle insists throughout the entire movie that it is not a date. Barack even concedes that it’s not a date until she says it’s a date, and technically she never does.
The film opens with Michelle (Tika Sumpter, who is also a producer) getting ready; her parents tease her about her primping and she insists it’s “not a date” that she is going on with the young law-student, who is one of the only other black lawyers at their firm. This is the main reason Michelle cites for resisting the relationship at first.
We glimpse her domesticity, she’s remained at home to help her parents, her father, who worked extra hard to send her and her brother to school, suffered from multiple sclerosis. The next part of the opening sequence contrasts Michelle’s perfectionism and domesticity with Barack’s unwashed dishes and last-minute shirt change before leaving. He talks to his grandmother who asks in a roundabout way if Michelle is black, indicating that Barack (Parker Summers) has dated mostly white women in the past. He has a cigarette dangling from his lip for most of this.
Their plans are to go to a community meeting; when I say “their” I mean that’s what he told her they were doing. The meeting turns out to be much later in the day with Barack planning a more romantic adventure beforehand. While this film is open about the sexism and racism that Michelle faced as a black female lawyer in the 80s, the filmmakers depend upon the “don’t-take-no-for-an-answer” mentality as its main convention; this includes mirroring the idea of not giving up with social justice efforts to pursuing someone who has said no to a date.
Michelle insists it’s not a date. She does not leave, however, so the hangout continues. They shop at street-side vendors briefly, before Barack takes her to an art exhibit featuring famed black painter, Ernie Barnes. Barack impresses her with his intimate knowledge of Barnes’ work and they both appreciate the vivid and diverse scenes of black life.
They then have lunch (which she won’t let him pay for). He brings her pie and she says she’s more of an ice cream person and says he hates ice cream; this is one of many obvious metaphors utilized in the film, showing the differences they have to overcome to come together. As they talk, we learn how different their childhoods were, though they both share class and race-struggle. Michelle was pushed to succeed by both her parents, including her father who worked tirelessly, even through his disease, to send his children to college. Barack’s parents were too caught up in their own tumultuous lives to really push him, and we witness a burning resentment in Barack toward his father, which she calls him out on. He calls her out too, for abandoning her grassroots college days for a big-monied firm that she doesn’t agree with. She tells him he has no right to judge her.
When they show up to the community meeting it is clear that Barack was once a prized member of the group and is coming back for the first time after going away to college. It is also clear that everyone loves him. They sing his praises to Michelle while presumingly calling her “his woman.” The filmmakers then show us the beginnings of something we’ve all witnessed for the past 8 years or more: Barack Obama’s speaking skills. He is asked to make a speech and it is a rousing one that inspires hope and motivates the group to continue their efforts toward establishing a youth community center. In this speech, he talks about members of the city council, who have just denied their petition for land, and says that the community members have to think about things from their perspective; give them something they need so they’ll give us what we need, essentially. He talks about not judging people too quickly, a moment where we see Michelle start to soften as she sees that he has been listening to her after all. He also insists on not giving up: “victories don’t come easy…use them as building blocks.” The implication is simultaneously his pursuit of Michelle.
It’s an obvious ploy to bring a woman you want to date to a meeting where everyone adores you and you’re going to make a powerful, uplifting speech. She tells him exactly that. She’s warming to him, though, as we can see by more smiles and a looseness she inhabits over drinks.
They then go and see a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a film about brewing racial tensions, that sparked controversy when it was released because white viewers were worried that it would incite black people to riot. The clip from Do the Right Thing that was used is all-too-relevant in today’s racial climate: a black man is essentially hanged to death by a white cop’s billy club. The following scene depicted riotous looting. This was an emotional moment for both the audience and our hero and heroine on screen. No matter what divides them throughout the film, they are united by the knowledge of their blackness, their otherness.
After the film they run into one of the senior partners are their firm, an older white man who is instantly and continually condescending toward Michelle and who excessively praises Barack in the “he’s-so-articulate” way. He asks them a question about the film, almost daring them to support what he sees as unjustified anger and property damage. “Why would Mookie do that do his own boss?”
Barack is quick with an “acceptable” answer, saying Mookie was trying to keep other people from dying and figured damaging the store was better than more death. (He later says they were just really pissed, implying that he doesn’t really believe what he’s told their boss).
As Senor White Man leaves, he tells Michelle to “treat him real good,” implying Barack, implying much more than is in any way appropriate. She’s Barack’s superior, the real Michelle Obama would go on to make significantly more money annually than her husband, she had degrees from two Ivy League schools; all this man sees her as is a source of sexual satisfaction for his token good black boy. She’s livid, she’s been justified in her resistance all day; she says that the whole office will talk about them and that her reputation will be tarnished.
The thing about this film, is even though I love the real Obama romance, what I’ve seen in pictures and videos, I didn’t care about them getting together. I was initially annoyed with Barack’s insistence on making the day a date, his pushiness, his flirtation in lieu of validating her feelings or hearing what she was actually saying. And in this last part of the film, when he has the chance to say “You’re right” “I’m sorry,” “That was completely messed up,” he does none of those things. Instead, he drives to an ice cream shop, buys her a chocolate cone (her favorite) and they sit on a bench and share a kiss.
I don’t know if I believe that the openly feminist Barack and the strong, intelligent Michelle would have behaved this way. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. But the screenwriters fell short for me in showing that they truly belonged together. He ignores her protests, tossing them off as silly, and he doesn’t acknowledge that her fears and worries as a black woman are valid. I don’t think Michelle would have stood for that. Turning the romantic switch into an ice cream gift diminishes her capacity as a person; she can be bought with a delicious treat and that’s all it takes.
One thing that the film does do well, despite a somewhat lack of chemistry between its two leads, is capture the playfulness that we’ve come to know and love from the Obamas. They tease each other, they dance together, they laugh together. Tika’s portrayal starts out as closed off and doesn’t go very far toward opening up. (I can’t blame her; I wouldn’t want to open up to someone who wasn’t listening to me or honoring my wishes.) This seemed like more of a failure in the acting, however, more than a choice.
Another thing the film does exceptionally is show the complexity of their lives. Both come from interracial backgrounds, both deal with the fact of their blackness, overcoming it every day, if not every hour, but also learning how to embrace and love it, both deal with family struggles, Obama has never known or felt wanted by his father, Michelle deals with the double jeopardy of being a black woman; they are both sharp, hard-working and driven, and they both want to make some kind of change in the world. They talk about the show Good Time early on, and the character JJ’s love of painting. In the show, JJ’s father encourages him to keep painting because he knows it’s the only way he’ll “make it out.” (This was included because Ernie Barnes did all of JJ’s paintings for the show).
Here are two young black people who have been working their whole lives to “get out;” but their’s is an effort to get out without abandoning, to go into the world in order to bring change and hope back with them.
It’s interesting that the film is coming out now, as Obama’s tenure draws to a close. Perhaps hearing a guy who looks quite similarly to Barack Obama speak about somewhat radical politics would have been too much while he was running for president. Even so, the film shows him as we know him to be, ever the diplomat, trying to find the common ground. Except when he’s pursuing a woman romantically, apparently.
I’m pretty sure I liked the film a lot more because I’m fond of the Obamas and I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. The acting was fairly one-note, Sumpter’s speech is unnaturally stilted in an effort to impersonate the FLOTUS. Summers (who auditioned by doing an impersonation of Barack) occasionally sacrifices the impersonation to bring real humanity to his character, something Sumpter could have done a bit more of. The conventions were cliche and (in the case of the friend-zone, persistent pursuer one) tired and problematic. It was beautifully shot, and it did an excellent job of exploring racial issues, and it was fun. All totaled I’ll give it 8 out of 10.
As a film, it’s not spectacular; but, it is good, it has really good things to say, and it’s a lovely (if problematic) depiction of perhaps the best couple to hit the White House since…I don’t know, the Kennedy’s? The Lincoln’s? They might just be the best couple to hit the White House ever.
Southside With You will be released in theaters August 26.