SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU B
USA (84 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Richard Tanne
Acknowledging the paucity of black filmmakers coming out of Hollywood today, perhaps it’s only natural that the writer and director behind this project is a white Jewish guy from New Jersey who has the audacity to make a fictionalized film about the first date of the sitting President of the United States and the First Lady while they are still in office. If the film came out of Hollywood, it would be announced with plenty of fanfare and hoopla, perhaps playing to a political base or a targeted demographic. Instead this came out of Sundance nearly unannounced, without a major ad campaign. As is, it’s actually a quiet and remarkably understated character piece that focuses on the intelligence of both characters, who are perhaps blown away at meeting someone of the opposite sex that is as smart, ambitious, and deliciously charming as they are, both black overachievers. It’s not often we see that in the movies, so audiences may be mixed on this one, as the world of film doesn’t often get to tell these kinds of stories, real or imagined. Perhaps the best of its kind is Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy (2008), an unassuming first date picture between two highly intelligent black independents in their 20’s from San Francisco, where the film spends 24 hours with them, much of it in real time, as they feel each other out discussing race and the low percentage (just 7%) of blacks living in San Francisco, spending the day visiting the Museum of the African Diaspora, an affordable housing coalition meeting, before watching a concert. It’s a surprisingly similar scenario to the Obama first date, visiting an Afro exhibit at an art museum, having lunch in a nearby park, visiting a community meeting at a local church, before heading off to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), where in each the evolving personalities take center stage. No one writes naturalistic dialogue as well as Richard Linklater, whose conversational trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) documenting the personal exploration of two characters over time stands near the apex of his artistic achievement, all perhaps drawn from Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954). While those may be masterworks, this, by comparison, is a small but unpretentious film that just happens to tell a real story about one day in the life of Barack and Michelle Obama when they were just ordinary people, before they were a couple or really knew one another, and before the spotlight of their lives became scrutinized as public figures.
To its credit, the film is not a biographical account of what happened, where they are impersonating existing lives, but is instead an imaginary journey of what might have happened, including invented conversations of what they may have said, grounded in a reality of events that took place in Chicago, gathered from what we already know from two books written by Obama, all envisioned through the eyes of a first-time director. Surprisingly, he does not embarrass himself, which could permanently derail his career, and instead presents an impressionistic mosaic of shifting mood swings, where much of their dialogue is a battle of wits, with the more reserved Michelle (Tika Sumpter, who is also an executive producer) continually deflecting Barack’s (Parker Sawyers) openly expressed interest. Both were employed by the same corporate law firm, Sidley & Austin, the only two black people in the firm, where in 1989 he is a summer associate, having just completed his first year at Harvard Law School, while she is a second year associate, having already graduated from Harvard Law School, making her Barack’s advisor at the time. To her, their friendship is strictly a professional relationship, not wishing to blemish her reputation at the firm, while the seemingly more relaxed Barack, cigarette always in hand in those days, seems to have other inclinations. Both are from starkly different backgrounds, where she comes from a solidly South side, working-class background, still living at home with her parents, with her father developing symptoms of multiple sclerosis, while Barack has traveled the globe, living for a time in Indonesia, raised by white grandparents in Hawaii, presumably for a better education, where he’s largely been absent from his own parents. As a result, there’s some emotional distance to cover, where the other provides something uniquely different for each of them to understand. Initially, however, it’s Michelle who is caught off-guard, thinking this young upstart might be trying something slick, Southside with You Movie CLIP - This is Not a Date (2016) - Tika Sumpter Movie YouTube (1:06). Both exhibit a fiery spirit, where their eloquence with words gives the other pause, with both playing a kind of cat and mouse game, each taking personal jabs at the other, reaching into one another’s private inner sanctum, where thankfully there are plenty of silences to allow the changing moods to sink in. As the day progresses, they still remain together, though there are ample opportunities to cut it short, yet to their credit, they maintain the intensity levels, keeping their charm and wits about them, even as this is perceived as something of a marathon date. While the director acknowledges it all happened, it’s likely that the visit to a community meeting may have taken place on another day, with the director claiming poetic license.
The film opens with a certain apprehension and anxiety in the air felt by both before what is obviously a significant event, with Michelle downplaying it in front of her parents, but fooling neither one, while Barack fends off a phone call from his grandmother informing her this is a girl with a darker complexion, suggesting prior white girl issues. Arriving in his beat-up yellow Datsun with a rusted-out hole on the floorboard of the passenger’s side, with the music blaring Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson - Miss You Much - YouTube (4:20), the chain-smoking Barack is customarily late, which she takes issue with, visiting an exhibition at the Art Institute, which was off limits for shooting, so instead it was shot down the street at the Chicago Cultural Center, featuring a vibrantly colorful Afrocentric art exhibit by Ernie Barnes, having a discussion standing in front of the painting Room Ful’A Sistahs, Southside With You "Not As They Appear" Featurette - Now Playing in Select Cities! YouTube (1:13). Barack points out his artwork was featured on the television show Good Times (1974 – 79) as well as Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album cover of “I Want You.” Stick around for the duration of the end credits, as his work is gorgeously featured there as well. While it’s a beautiful setting, so is the walk in the park afterwards, actually filmed in the lush greenery of Douglas Park on the city’s West side, offering her a slice of pie (“Who doesn’t like pie?”), but she prefers ice cream, where they actually start to open up to each other, Southside With You "Grade School" Featurette [HD] Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers YouTube (1:27), hearing the music of a conga circle nearby, where a young black girl picks Michelle to come dance with her, easily the most exquisitely liberating moments of the film, before finally heading to the community meeting at the Altgeld Gardens public housing project on the far south side, one of the city’s oldest housing projects, isolated from the rest of the city and nearly 5 miles to the closest police station. The scenes were actually shot at the historic Quinn Chapel (Original file), one of the oldest black churches in the country sitting atop one of the freedom stops on the Underground Railway, a site where speeches have been made by Frederick Douglass, W.E. Dubois, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Susan Anthony, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, along with noted preachers Martin Luther King, Jr., Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Jesse Jackson, as well as President Barack Obama. The walkway to the meeting site is through a yellow brick tunnel where the names of gunshot victims are written on the walls, a relic from the past that is as pertinent today as it was when it happened, where the couple moves through this walkway in total silence, as if observing a shrine to the past. Once inside, the meeting has the ring of a lovefest for the young Obama, having worked as a community organizer in Altgeld Gardens before entering law school, where women can’t wait to share feel-good stories about him to Michelle, where he’s treated like a returning hero.
The meeting holds a central place in the film, as it’s the first time Michelle is completely taken aback by the startling power of his innate qualities, where she gets a chance to see him in his own element, holding court in a room full of angered low income housing residents who are used to being frustrated by an apathetic system that perpetually denies their funding requests and leaves them completely out of the process. Billboards and pamphlets that advertise the city’s prowess as a “city that works” do not include these residents, who are often viewed by the rest of the city as a dumping ground of discontent, a jobless community so depressed that whatever money flows through their coffers appears to go down the drain, as every year it remains a major crime area filled with out-of-control gangs. It’s hard to get your hopes up when everyone’s dreams are dashed. Like a scene out of John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), Barack has an inspiring nobility about him, refusing to be deterred by constant setbacks, offering his view that they’re actually in a better position than they’ve ever been, pointing out the nature of how difficult it is in a democracy to change the minds and hearts of those sitting in power, who have to continually be reminded of the resourcefulness coming from dispossessed communities. He gives a great speech, literally changing the mindset of those in the room, deflecting the fury, offering the prospect that they can ultimately succeed if they refuse to back down, reassess their interests, and perhaps utilize a less confrontational, more inclusive strategy that suggests what’s best for them is actually better for the city overall. It’s an impressive display of Obama’s grassroots organizing skills, where he is asking residents to withhold their judgments (a lesson he attributes to his newfound friend) about what seems like a corrupt and contaminated system until they have a chance to see it through, as the building blocks of progress are made in a series of achievable accomplishments that others around them eventually come to recognize and respect. While Michelle is not exactly blown off her feet, she finds it suspiciously clever that he invited her to a community meeting where he happened to be the central speaker. Not yet ready to call it a day, they have drinks in Hyde Park, though it’s actually a bar near Douglas Park called The Water Hole Lounge, Southside with You Movie CLIP - Make A Difference (2016) - Tika Sumpter Movie YouTube (1:19), where the two spar over a beer about which is the best Stevie Wonder album, with Michelle making the case for Talking Book while Barack is an Innervisions kind of guy, before heading out to watch the controversial Spike Lee film where brutally excessive police tactics cause an innocent death, leading to a furious state of rage on the street that is broken by an incendiary turn of events that has divided audiences for decades, a literal standoff between the non-violent teachings of Martin Luther King and the “any means necessary” of Malcolm X. Most black audiences instinctively understand the ending, while whites inevitably tend to question the use of violence to fight violence, having never endured the same oppressive conditions. Bumping into a senior partner from their law firm after the film, both employees act embarrassed and defensive in his presence, as the film perhaps unnecessarily strives to make that same point. By the end of the night, a visit to the neighborhood Baskin-Robbins shop for ice cream seems to seal the deal, creating a well-earned truce between their harboring doubts about one another, nothing that a brief kiss can’t overcome in a nanosecond. It would be three years before they’d marry, but this little indie film sets the tone for a romantic spark.