Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review: Southside with You

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) preps for the day she plans to spend with a young man she describes as a smooth talking co-worker, but insists to her mother that it's not a date. Emphasizing that she is his supervisor at the law firm where she works and he interns, she doesn't think it would be appropriate if, on this summer day in 1989, romance had anything to do with it. Her date's name? Barack Obama. He's spending the summer in Chicago after having attended a few semesters at Harvard University.

If you're thinking that "Southside with You" sounds like a silly romantic comedy that just happens to chronicle the first date of the Obamas, you'd be wrong. Rather, the picture has a similar vibe to Richard Linklater's introspective "Before" films, in which its two leads mostly spend time walking and talking with each other about their hopes, dreams and fears. "Southside," which was directed by Richard Tanne and apparently closely adheres to what actually took place on the first date - or "non-date" as Michelle would have it - between the Obamas, is an interesting day in the life of two very well-known people that portrays how personalities can be formed and nurtured by specific events.

The film amusingly personalizes both characters as the film opens. Michelle is serious, determined, hard working and not about to put up with any nonsense from the guy with whom she'll spend the afternoon. In fact, she's only agreed to go along because he intends to speak to a congregation that is seeking to get a community center built in their Chicago neighborhood. Meanwhile, Barack, chain smoking and talking on the phone with his mother, immediately strikes us as a man who has a lot on his mind and more than a few plans. He's clearly interested in the woman with whom he'll be spending his afternoon and will not be deterred by her insistence on professionalism.

He pulls up to her house blasting Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much" and their "non-date" begins from there. During the course of the day, they drop by a gallery and view an Ernie Barnes exhibit of paintings depicting inner city life, stop for sandwiches and then finally make their way to the church where Barack will speak before the congregation. Parker Sawyers does a nice job of catching the cadences of how Obama speaks, giving an early indicator of the type of orator he'll one day be without banging us too much over the head about it.

Later in the day, Barack, hoping to extend the day as long as possible, suggests they go to a movie and they catch a screening of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," which is, perhaps, still the greatest movie ever made about race relations. At the end of the film, the pair spots an older white attorney and his wife from their firm who are also in attendance. The attorney was put off by the picture's ending - when Mookie throws a trash can through the pizzeria's window - and Obama assures the man that this occurred for reasons that are not wholly accurate. When they're alone again, Barack tells Michelle that he did so to make the man feel at ease and then goes on to expound what he really thought the final scene in Lee's film meant, providing "Southside" with its own thoughtful take on race relations.

"Southside with You" is a funny, charming and smart picture about two very famous people at a time when they were discovering who they are. It does a good job at covering subject matter - law, race, black culture, politics and ambition - that would later be important tenets of Obama's career without feeling as if they were unnecessarily interjected into the conversations that take place between the two characters. In other words, the conversation flows easily and never feels forced and the foreshadowing isn't preposterous or overbearing.

It's an enjoyable movie about an afternoon spent with two intelligent and contemplative people and it gives insights into how significant life events - such as the first date with your future spouse - can shape and form how you view the world and your own place in it. It may not end up being the Obama movie - I believe there is a movie in the works that focuses more on his political career - but it's certainly worth a look.

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