Less than a month before Barack Obama was elected to take George W. Bush’s place in the White House, a feature film about the departing president was released to theaters. It was called W., a serious biopic that somewhat humanized the 43rd President (mostly via his lifelong attempts to satisfy his father), but mostly served as a checklist of the many failures of his presidency, served up with all the subtlety you’d expect from director Oliver Stone (which is to say, very little). This was an approach roughly approximate to the general feeling about that presidency: when W. landed in theaters on October 17, 2008, Dubya was sitting at a 75% disapproval rate. He left office with the movie he deserved.
So the contrast between Bush’s cinematic parting gift and his successor’s is striking. Writer/director Richard Tanne’s Southside with You isn’t a scathing exposé from a political provocateur – it’s a slight, sweet, sunny romantic comedy, a chronicle of the future POTUS and FLOTUS’s first date, one summer afternoon and evening back in 1989. In other words, Bush got a Nixon, and Obama got a Before Sunrise. Have I mentioned Obama’s currently pulling a 52% approval rate, with many pundits already lamenting the end of his administration?
That details of that first date – which Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) saw as merely a friendly hangout and which Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) hoped would veer into something more – have become folklore: art gallery stroll, community meeting, Do the Right Thing, ice cream and first kiss outside the Baskin-Robbins.
Tanne’s script adheres to those touchstones, and weaves its own drama and conflicts into them. Michelle, Barack’s mentor at the law firm where he was working a summer internship, doesn’t care to court the gossip and assumptions of a romantic entanglement. He is uncomfortable talking about his family in general and his father in particular, a marked contrast to her closeness with her own. Both feel the pressures and tensions of being black professionals in a white world, and at a white firm.
The peculiarity of this project occasionally distracts; much of the opening table-setting is clumsy, and a lot of their early dialogue feels like it’s pulling biographical double-duty. And while some of the shout-outs to what we know about the couple are cute – a fist-bump sculpture in the museum, a background appearance by the white Panama hat of those college-years photos, an argument over Stevie Wonder’s greatest album, her insistence that Hawaii “just seems so foreign” – they too often amount to the kind of winking self-awareness that’s so obnoxious in origin stories and prequels, or even in fan fiction. (That said, the mirroring of Do the Right Thing’s early scenes is clever, as Southside revels in the high temperatures, shows kids in sprinklers, and even includes a radio DJ with advice on how to beat the heat.)
Yet, in the film’s centerpiece sequence (and its best one), we see how this kind of low-key, snapshot biography can illuminate both who a great man once was, and who he would become. As part of their afternoon together, Michelle accompanies Barack to a community meeting, in one of the neighborhoods where he worked as an organizer before heading to Harvard. The residents are rowdy and impassioned, disappointed by what seems an impossible setback. Yet when he takes over the meeting, he reminds them that even their opponents are “good-hearted folks,” and that they simply have to learn to view these issues through another lens. “Most people, at their core, are basically good people,” he insists. “We have to understand who they are, and what they need.” And, he continues, when their opponents’ needs align with their needs, then things get done: “That’s America.”
It’s a beautiful ideology, one he carried with him all the way into the presidency – where it was crushed by a first term in which a repulsively obstinate GOP made preventing his re-election their top priority (a goal that, like most everything else, they failed to achieve). This prompted a second term where he’d learned the lesson that when it comes to making things happen in Washington, you’re on your own.
In a moment that plays smoother than it sounds, Southside with You foreshadows the pressures, compromises, and disappointments of his own administration – as Obama makes reference to Harold Washington, their city’s “first black mayor… Our mayor,” he notes. But he reminds them that Washington made mistakes, upset constituents, and “had to face the truth of this country: it’s hard to get things done.”
Sawyers delivers that vital monologue well – there and throughout, he and Sumter studiously avoid imitation, while still capturing the familiar vocal rhythms and general demeanor of their famous characters. In a sly jab at the conventional wisdom about the President, pro and con, Michelle delivers this verdict of his performance at the meeting: “You sound a little professorial, but you definitely have a knock for making speeches.” It’s a touch on the nose, sure – but by that point, Southside with Me is no longer a self-contained narrative anyway. It’s become a representative biopic, another strain of that recent trend in historical filmmaking to focus on a single event that captures a figure’s essence, rather than trying to smash s whole life into two or three hours (see Lincoln and Selma). That Southside can do that, and do it with an event that happened before said figures’ political lives had even begun, and do it with this much warmth and charm… well, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Southside with You is out Friday in limited release.