Who wouldn’t want to tag along on Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson‘s first date on a summer’s day in 1989 Chicago, when they were respectively 28 and 25? With an assurance that nothing too heavy or difficult will happen, and that the chatter will always feel right and real? Richard Tanne‘s Southside With You (Roadside, 8.26) is smart and centered. Likable, interesting, holds your attention, no sweat. I’ve seen it twice and could go again. Everyone will like the intelligent, open, glide-along vibe.
Barack (Parker Sawyers) is an obviously bright, mild-mannered preppy bro, working at Michelle’s Chicago law firm for the summer, smoking too much, more than a little bothered about his deceased dad’s “incomplete” life and less than resolved about what he wants to do after finishing Harvard Law. “Maybe” politics, he says.
Michelle (Tika Sumpter, who also produced) is more mature and focused but also wrapped a little too tight, at first guarded to the point of almost being brittle, and yet open and spirited when the mood shifts. She gradually relaxes but when things start she’s against the idea of going on a “date” with a “smooth-talking brother” because she doesn’t want her associates to chuckle about her getting cozy with the “cute” black guy, etc.
It all happens in Chicago’s South Side, a primarily black district that is referred to a couple of times as “the garden.” Barack picks her up around 1 pm in his shitty little car with a hole in the floorboard. They exchange the usual personal histories, preferences, etc. (He likes pie, she likes chocolate ice cream.) They catch an exhibition of black painter Ernie Barnes. They attend a community center meeting where Barack delivers an impromptu speech about acting in a less hostile fashion toward white Chicago establishment politicians who don’t seem to care about funding a community center. They go for beers, talk some more, and then catch a showing of Spike Lee‘s Do The Right Thing.
Which leads to the only socially awkward moment of their non-date, when Michelle runs into an older white attorney from her law firm, apparently a senior member, under the marquee, and then Barack returns from the bathroom and she’s mortified…busted! But the older white guy brightens and grins at the sight of Barack and it’s all easy and cool. Except, that is, for senior whitey’s opinion of the ending of Do The Right Thing (i.e., why did Mookie succumb to self-destructiveness by throwing the trash can through the window of the pizzeria?). Michelle is guarded and pissed again, so Barack stops at a Baskin-Robbins and buys her a chocolate cone. It ends with a kiss and a nice feeling as they return to their homes. Over and out.
It struck me as a tad unusual than Tanne, a 31 year old caucasian from New Jersey, wrote the screenplay as well as directed. It’s not odd that Tanne would feel enthralled by Barack and Michelle’s story or be able to recreate their early history with skill or sensitivity, but Southside is very chocolate. It delves into black culture and identity issues in some depth. The only white guy in the film is the afore-mentioned older Anglo attorney (along with his wife). The generic presumption would have been that an African American guy should have handled things because a white guy can’t be expected to get the milieu, just as Spike Lee once argued that Norman Jewison couldn’t hope to effectively direct a biopic about Malcolm X.
The other unusual thing is that before Southside With You I’d never processed Barack and Michelle as strictly “black” — i.e., African Americans who are plugged into the cultural minutiae of their community and certain black behaviors while, you know, hanging exclusively with others of the tribe and, as noted, rolling their eyes at an older white guy’s opinion of Do The Right Thing. To me Barack and Michelle have always been post-racial cappucinos, bringers, orators and operators who get my 21st Century way of thinking and being completely.
Southside With You has been compared to Richard Linklater‘s Before Sunrise, which it is somewhat similar to. But let’s also be honest and admit that if Barack Obama wasn’t president it would’t be as interesting. It would still be a pleasing, well-written date movie but it wouldn’t resonate as much. And yet Sawyers and Sumpter are good inhabitors. They do the right thing. I hadn’t paid attention to either before this, but I sure know them now.
What kind of meal is Southside? How nutritious is it? It has a chocolate cone quality in one or two respects, but I would mainly call it a tangy mid-sized house salad with a sprinkling of low-calorie dressing and with a serving of sliced melon. Plus a Pelligrino or Perrier. With a whole lot of stinky cigarettes. Barack lights up so much I thought I felt a cancerous tumor growing in my chest towards the end.
Barack and Michelle haven’t seen Southside With You, I was told the weekend before last. Exec producer John Legend, who attended the Southside press conference, said they knew about it from the get-go, but no DVDs or screenings at the White House have been requested. The cool thing, of course, would be if they sneak into a little cinema in Washington and catch it like a regular couple, munching the popcorn and chuckling to themselves.