The “Southside” Part is Best
Watching Southside With You, I kept thinking, “Too soon!”
The film, which chronicles the courtship of a certain Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), has a lot going for it. I jived with the film’s energy, its celebration of black culture, its nod to Do the Right Thing that made me reexamine my own interpretation of that film’s ending. I enjoyed how it emulates Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy without parroting it outright, using the walk-and-talk narrative model to explore the idiosyncrasies of South Side Chicago. I liked the two lead actors, who deliver their lines with conviction even when the screenplay stumbles into sappiness or the musical cues feel miscalculated.
Unfortunately, this story of two young lovebirds-to-be testing the waters of each others’ company is tainted by the fact that they are the younger selves of the President and First Lady of the United States. The appeal of the film’s premise isn’t lost on me. It is always interesting to learn the private lives of public figures, a fascination that could lead down questionable roads à la celebrity tabloids but could also be a precursor to empathy. One of my favorite moments from Southside With You involves Barack entreating a small audience of listeners to empathize with others’ perspectives even when these perspectives differ from their own. He sums up this simultaneous difference and unity-through-mutual-understanding as being the crux of what the “United” States is all about. For all of the country’s problems, I admire this one thing about it, and it is this same impulse to humanize and empathize that undergirds the appeal of Southside With You.
In the film, the high and mighty POTUS chain smokes, hates ice cream, and smooth talks his date into accidentally complimenting him. In other words, he is shown to be just another imperfect goofball fumbling through life like the rest of us, making for a much more sympathetic figure than the telegenic public speaker we always see on TV. And yet, because he and Michelle are still in political office in the viewer’s reality, and because their legacy has a significant bearing on the outcome of the forthcoming election, this otherwise benign portrait takes on a political edge. Because the film is about the Obamas specifically and not a fictional couple like Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, every move to generate sympathy for the characters feels like an endorsement, an advertisement for their personalities.
Earlier, I mentioned a moment from the film that I liked. I stand by my affection for this snippet, but the speech from which it was excerpted is a mixed bag. On one level, the speech itself is well-written, and Sawyers convincingly appropriates several of Obama’s more familiar mannerisms even as he conveys that this younger Barack is indeed younger—a more callow, more rakish version of the President we know. In performance and presentation, this scene works. But the extent to which the film seeks to aggrandize the future President in this scene—confirmed by the audience literally nodding their heads and clapping their hands in approval, as if to cue the viewer to respond likewise—also feels vaguely propagandistic. This feeling is oddly reinforced by the presence of another plot-level duplicity: though Barack appears to be speaking in total sincerity about the issues in the speech, he is also showing off to the girl whose heart he wants to win. Moreover, it is precisely because these ulterior agendas occur under the guise of sincerity that they become that much more troubling. An open endorsement is fine because it announces itself as such. To slyly win our sympathies while pretending to do something else, however, is under-handed and potentially insidious.
One might wonder whether Southside With You would’ve been a better movie had it been released ten, twenty years into the future, after the the 2016 election year has passed and memory of Obama’s office term has become less charged by the urgency of the present. Perhaps, but it wasn’t released then—it was released less than a week ago. Sticking to facts rather than speculation, we know that director and screenwriter Richard Tanne made the deliberate decision to tell this tale of the Obamas in pre-election 2016. Viewed in this context, the film’s borderline doting treatment of its two leads verges on sickly where it should have been charming. It could be that Tanne had no intention of making a political film, but he has.
It is when the film stops being specifically about Barack and Michelle that it becomes more remarkable. This occurs when the camera gazes out the window of Barack’s car at black kids playing in the streets; when shots linger on impressionistic paintings in an Afrocentric art exhibit; when the film’s focus shifts away from the characters, scaling down their importance to emphasize a sense of culture and place. This surprising diminution of Barack and Michelle actually saves Southside With You. If the film had remained purely an idealization of these two future political officeholders, it might have emerged as nothing more than a queasy piece of hagiography. But because certain scenes choose to humble the characters not just through presenting them with “flaws”—which can actually romanticize characters further—but through diminishing them visually and narratively, the film emerges more fascinating than its premise might suggest. These scenes posit that the President and First Lady of the United States, understood to be two of the most powerful people in the world, belong to a larger tapestry of human stories. In these scenes, the young Barack and Michelle truly shed the rarefied status we retroactively confer on them, becoming “one of us” in the sense of being part of something bigger rather than taking all the glory for themselves.
In this decision to foreground peoples and places, the film has perhaps touched on the one way that tribute could be paid to the Obamas without appearing overly laudatory: in contrast to other moments that overtly showcase Barack and Michelle’s charm and chemistry, these more tactful scenes subordinate America’s future leaders to the people they serve. When the film becomes in praise of not individuals but the community that raised them, inspired them, and will eventually elect them, Southside With You grows into something truly special: a vision of America as a place where individual stars and leaders exist but community reigns.