Southside with You

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne

 

Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bad Moms

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