SIFF Film Review – Southside With You
Southside With You
I kind of hate it when movies are about real people because you can never really get rid of the baggage that comes with a recognizable name. No fictional movie is 100% factual (no matter what the filmmakers want to you believe) because things inevitably get changed to make a point, streamline the narrative, or just make things more interesting. A recent example would be the Coen Brother’s film Hail, Caesar! about Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix, who was a real guy – a real jerkface guy. The Coen’s Mannix is basically a nice guy just doing his job, but because I knew the real story of what a horrible human he was, I had a hard time engaging with the character presented to me. (Although I still enjoyed the film.) Richard Tanne’s first feature film, Southside With You, has an even harder battle with preconceived notions, as he has created a fictionalized account of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. Love them or hate them, almost everyone has an opinion about our 44th president and his first lady. (I think he’s okay, and Michelle is my second favorite first lady. Ladybird for the win.) Going into the film, we know where these two will end up, and it’s hard not to let that affect how one sees this story.
The film starts with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) getting ready for a date with a summer associate at her law firm, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). Except it’s not a date. She’s his advisor and doesn’t want to jeopardize her job by being seen going out with the first cute Black guy who shows up at work. He insists it is a date, she says no, he pretends to agree, but not so subtly pursues her anyway. They are supposed to be going to a community organization meeting, but he picks her up hours beforehand, sweet-talking her into spending more time with him even though she is pretty angry about the deception. They go to the art museum, have lunch, and engage in conversation over several hours. They both have very different backgrounds, and it’s fun watching them discover the really important things about each other. (She hates pie.) They end up at the community meeting, where Michelle gets to see Barack in a more flattering light, and they finish up the evening by going to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. There might also be beer, chocolate ice cream, and a kiss.
How much of this really happened? I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s a movie and it needs to succeed on its own terms, and for the most part I think it does. It’s not hagiography, although it does idealize both parties a bit. Both are super smart, and while Michelle seems more principled, Barack is more idealistic. It’s light entertainment, and while it kind of succeeds as a romance, I don’t think it needs the compulsory kiss at the end. It worked fine just as a film about two people getting to know each other. In fact, I would have preferred it without any touching at all in light of (the character) Barack Obama’s refusal to take (the character) Michelle’s concerns about their dating seriously. He’s not quite stalkery, but he is very insistent, almost to the point of being offensive. Tika Sumpter also appears in her bra during the opening scenes, and I can’t really tell you what purpose that serves other than the obvious. We could probably tell she was getting ready even without that little bit of signaling. Both of these decisions made by the writer/director Tanne serve to undermine Michelle’s portrayal as a smart, successful woman who knows what she wants.
What was really interesting for me, other than the conversations between the fictional future president and first lady, is how the film frames their Blackness. The characters in this movie experience their race and class very differently, and the movie does not shy away from that. I am not Black and don’t get to decide what constitutes a valid discussion of the differing facets of the African-American experience, but I was very happy to hear them discuss these issues. The real-life Obamas are almost always shown in relation to the White political structures that surround them, so it was nice to see them as part of a Black community instead of Black people in a White House.
It’s a gentle romance with lots of talking, and if that’s your thing, then you will enjoy the hell out of this. If this is not your idea of a good time, and your partner makes you go anyway for date night, do not despair. It’s not sappy or insulting or lowest common denominator horrible. (You know what kind of romance movie I am talking about.) I liked this quite a bit, and it’s a nice change of pace from the super crap that’s come out this summer.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Richard Tanne from SIFF 2016.