Thursday, September 15, 2016

Before President: SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU

Southside with You is a cute movie about the young Obamas’ first date on a sunny Chicago day in 1989. We know they’ll soon fall in love, and we know in twenty years they’ll be the president and first lady of the United States. The movie knows this, too, but graciously keeps the context mostly subtextual. Its focus is on two sweet, idealistic-but-pragmatic, charismatic young people drawn together over the course of a lovely afternoon, building to nothing more than a first kiss – shot by cinematographer Patrick Scola in a swoony, light-streaked Wong Kar-wai-inspired shot that’s worth the wait – and a lingering promise of a second date. I can’t imagine a film like this – small, romantic, only implicitly political – about any other president’s first date. Though maybe that says more about my imagination than about this film’s particular qualities. Maybe John Waters could make a good dark romantic comedy about Nixon’s wooing his future wife by driving her on dates with other men.

But the Obamas are unlike any past presidential couple. As our first African-American Commander in Chief and First Lady, they have tremendous symbolic importance above and beyond their personal or political qualities. They are history in the making, his election proof our society can overcome our worst impulses, while the reaction from the right – unconscionable obstructionism, fear mongering, lying, and, of course, racism – is proof not all progress is linear. The movie situates the young Obamas as a black man and woman indebted to a cultural context. They are surrounded and informed by notable black voices – a Janet Jackson song under the opening credits, Ernie Barnes paintings in a gallery, an African drum circle in a park, Stevie Wonder and Good Times and Do the Right Thing discussed, and a well-read copy of a Toni Morrison novel cracked open. This is a movie casually but undeniably interested in the legacy that produced the Obamas, and the tradition to which they contribute.

Michelle Obama (then Robinson) emerges as the more overtly political figure in this slice-of-life. They’re colleagues from a law firm out on the town spending time before a local meeting on the southside of Chicago. She talks guardedly but candidly with Barack about her concerns as a black woman in a white man’s firm, the pressures to work twice as hard (at a minimum) to be given the same respect. Even then, she’s marginalized with microagressions. She’s an engaged and ambitious person. Barack is, too. When they arrive at the meeting, the neighborhood is discouraged by a setback in a bid to get a safe community center. Obama holds court, the power of his rhetoric alone enough to turn the dispirited hopeful. (Yes, he can.) Impressed, Michelle asks him afterwards if he ever considered a career in politics. “Maybe,” he says quite seriously, but with the smirk of dramatic irony half hidden in his eyes.

Debut writer-director Richard Tanne’s screenplay often gets an overly aware sense of foreshadowing about its dialogue like that. At one point, Barack talks about his childhood in Hawaii, to which Michelle quips that it sounds “so foreign.” Later she crinkles her nose and declares his extemporaneous speech “professorial.” It goes like that, making sure to include little winks and nods to various talking points from the last eight years. It’s distracting. But otherwise the movie makes no attempt to explicitly bring their futures into the picture. It’s an admirable attempt to warmly contextualize the political as personal, even if the dialogue occasionally errs on the side of sounding like two people trading lines from their Wikipedia pages. But even when the specifics are a bit stilted, the strength of the movie rests on its small scope, charting only the small shifts in affections over the course of a picturesque tour of stunning Chicago backdrops.

The movie is slight and sweet, burbling with the lowest of low-key romance. It’s only a first date, after all. Parker Sawyers (Monsters: Dark Continent) and Tika Sumpter (Get On Up) play the leads, appearing in every scene in a likable acting duet that reveals likeminded people slowly drawing closer through friendship to a tentative, promising intimacy. Sawyers and Sumpter carry the picture through its weaker, more obvious moments. So well cast and capably performed, it’s the sort of based-on-real-people movie where the artifice fades away and it feels like we’re looking at the real thing. From certain angles in certain moments, it looks not like impersonation, but exactly right. It is most powerful as an expression of cultural images and personal history as the two ways they, and we, make sense of our world and our lives’ possibilities. That’s what they talk about – anecdotes, family stories, work troubles, music, movies, dreams, and aspirations – as they learn about each other. And it carries with it the unspoken recognition of the inspirational benefits of where they’ll end up.

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