Movie Review - Southside With You

In 1989, Barack Obama, the future, 44th President of the United States, reportedly went on his first date with Michelle Robinson, his future wife and future mother of his two daughters. The date sprawled over various places in the city of Chicago, but mainly took place in the area simply known as the South Side.

When Obama announced he was running for president in 2007, a lot of articles were published that filled out details of that date, as well as the time around it. Of course, numerous books have also been printed, which tell of the lives of these two before Obama's election into the White House in 2008. In his feature debut, writer-director Richard Tanne draws upon those articles and books, as well as perhaps other research to imagine what they said and did, while on that date.

Tanne's film takes place all in one day, starting with them getting ready and ending with them at night, as they quietly contemplate the experience and as we contemplate the love between the first, black couple to live in the White House. Many have already remarked how much it feels like Richard Linklater's series of films starting with Before Sunrise (1995), and that's both a good thing and bad thing.

The point of a first date is to get to know one another. With each of the Linklater films, it's all about discovery, of learning and being unsure of what could be said or what could happen. With Tanne's film, that discovery is diminished because a lot of the first date questions are questions for which we already have answers. For a lot of it, Tanne's film provides you nothing deeper than what can be gleaned from both persons' Wikipedia pages. In fact, some of the dialogue feels like it's rattling off points in those Wikipedia pages.

The movie works when the characters are having human moments that show chemistry, conflict, or any kind of drama. The movie doesn't work when it's just dropping biographical facts. It starts off on the right foot with showing Michelle, played by Tika Sumpter (One Life to Live and The Haves and the Have Nots), getting ready and we see her looking in the mirror, putting on deodorant and being somewhat meticulous, as opposed to Barack, played by Parker Sawyers in what seems like his first leading role. Barack slouches and lounges around until moments before he's supposed to leave.

It simply shows them being normal and flawed. The problem is that there aren't enough of those moments. There aren't enough of those moments that show them being normal or flawed. Practically, all of it feels like a setup to illustrate how great both are, especially Barack and how this is going to be a perfect love-match. Given that black-on-black love in movies is so few and far between, this movie does satisfy a great itch. Yet, it creates a lot of missed opportunities in its pursuit to be only sweet and romantic, and not use the vehicle to dig deeper.

For example, one fact is that Barack and Michelle go to the movies to see Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, but this isn't a documentary. Besides just depicting that fact, there should be a reason to this scene. In the narrative, we see them exit the theater and encounter their employer, the named partner at the Chicago law firm where they work and initially met. Michelle is worried that her employer will think less of her as a black female aspiring in a professional environment, if she's seen dating Barack who's basically an intern at the time. Yet, this encounter could have happened anywhere. Why outside the theater?

Tanne could have at least taken the opportunity to comment more deeply on Lee's film, which still has perfect resonance to today. At the time, Barack and Michelle saw it, the whole Black-Lives-Matter movement hadn't begun, but no doubt Tanne wrote this script in the wake of that movement. We see Barack and Michelle watch the end of Lee's film, which depicts a black man getting killed by a police officer, which is exactly the issue that Black-Lives-Matter has. For them to have had a conversation that digs into the issue would have been phenomenal. It was a missed chance for the film to be that more relevant. Yet, Tanne includes that violent image from Lee's film, so perhaps that's enough.

Tanne sets up the possibility for such a conversation early on when Barack talks to Michelle about the artwork of Ernie Barnes whose paintings were used in the TV series Good Times. It's an Afro-centric discussion that may have seemed awkwardly handled but ends up working. Later, Michelle is seen dancing to African drums, which again primes the audience to expect images and words geared toward the black experience in ways that we haven't really gotten in the age of Tyler Perry. Typically, it's just been histrionics.

Another missed opportunity was a speech Barack gives about Altgeld Gardens. In a nod to real-life, the speech went on too long, but instead of just a rousing, inspirational monologue, it would have been more compelling to see a story-line about his efforts in Altgeld Gardens actualized on screen. Given the parameters of this film, that would have been impossible, but I suppose I simply object to the parameters, or else the Altgeld Gardens detour shouldn't have been included. At least, it shouldn't have gone on so long.

Arguably, it does lead to a great moment where Michelle criticizes his speech as too professorial. Yet, that is a criticism that has constantly been lobbied at President Obama since he took office. Again, that's something I could have gleaned from his Wikipedia page. It doesn't give much more beneath the surface of his skin. A comment that Michelle makes about Barack's ears lands with a thud too because Sawyers' ears don't stick out like the actual Barack Obama.

There's really only two scenes that are bold and really dive into the characters with conversations that don't feel safe. One is where Michelle calls Barack a hypocrite when he criticizes her working at a corporate firm. The other is when Michelle asks Barack if he's ever dated white women and if he has a preference, which leads into a conversation about Barack's father and his lingering issues. It's a shame there isn't more of that. The movie side-steps his religious experiences and it would have been compelling to jump into the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy or Obama's evolution on same-sex marriage.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 21 mins.

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