"Southside with You"
Release Date: Aug. 26, 2016
Running Time: 84 minutes
Like Oliver Stone’s peculiar George W. Bush bio W., Southside with You arrives in the final months of a sitting president’s second term. Unlike W., though, this Before Sunrise-influenced romance offers a flattering look at a young Barrack Obama (Parker Sawyers) as seen through the eyes of his future wife and First Lady, Michelle Obama (Tika Sumpter). Set on a Chicago summer day in 1989, when Barrack and the then Michelle Robinson went on their first date, writer/director Richard Tanne doesn’t pretend with the sweet and genuine Southside with You that it was love at first sight between the couple who would go on to break racial barriers with the 2008 general election. If anything, Southside with You creates the impression that Barrack not only hoodwinked Michelle into going on a date with him but that she was reluctant to do anything outside of work with the summer associate the lawyer was mentoring at her corporate law firm. To this end, Southside with You can’t be easily dismissed as a fairytale romance for rose-tinted liberals. Tanne also speculates that Michelle had no chance against Barrack: as portrayed by Parker Sawyers, who looks and sounds as we imagine Barrack did at the age of 27, he’s a smooth talker with the confidence to match. Sawyers doesn’t sand down Barrack’s rough edges—he can be occasionally overbearing and ostentatious, and his nicotine habit leaves little to be desired—but he presents the future 44th president as both passionate in his personal and political beliefs. There’s also a hint that Barrack would become a force to be reckoned during a rousing speech he delivers to a group of activists that is ready to give up on securing city funding for a community center. Not that Southside with You is a film that is caught up in the politics of the left or the right, but it does display a social awareness and a concern for racial injustice that draws comparisons to what’s going on in today’s America. Even with an African-American president in the White House, racism remains a destructive force that may be impossible to fully erase. His political leanings aside, though, there’s no denying that the Barrack in Southside with You is one who can captivate a crowd and motivate them to take action. But it takes Barrack a lot of time and effort in Southside with You to win over his skeptical date. Not that it’s really fair to call Michelle his date. Even as they wander around Chicago’s South Side, enjoying art exhibitions and taking in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Michelle attempts to resist Barrack’s obvious charms throughout the day. She fears that being seen in Barrack’s company could damage her reputation at work, especially among the older white men whom she believes do not see her as a lawyer but as an African-American woman who could be easily ignored. If it’s easy to see a future president in Swayers depiction of Barrack Obama, it’s harder to see the future First Lady in Tika Sumpter’s Michelle Robinson. The concern and compassion that the First Lady displays in public is there, but not the warmth and playfulness. Instead, Sumpter’s Michelle is tightly wound, somewhat jaded, and very guarded. Perhaps it is the situation that Michelle is placed in that requires her to act this. You can’t blame a woman—an African-American woman, especially—in the late 1980s for doing everything she can to protect her job and reputation. Damn the glass ceiling. Sure, Barrack slowly breaks down Michelle through kind actions and conversation both frivolous and meaning. But by the end of Southside with You, the Barrack Obama we get is the President we know; the Michelle Robinson we get is not necessarily the First Lady we know so well. Of course, people change over the course of decades, but Southside with You does beg the question: how did Michele Robinson evolve into the First Lady we know and many adore? It’s not a question writer/director Richard Tanne can ask—or even intends to ask—with Southside with You. Nor does he dare to suggest that Michelle Robinson would allow herself to become defined by her future husband and his political aspirations, which were still unclear to Barrack at the time he met Michelle. Instead, Southside with You gently confirms that when opposites attract, they sometimes go on to do great things together.
Aired: Aug. 25, 2016
Web site: http://www.southsidewithyou.com