‘Southside With You’ is the Feel Good Movie of the Fall
The new film Southside with You, starring Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers is a sweet tale of black love. The film unfolds the now almost mythical story of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s first date on Chicago’s south side. While, like Obama’s presidency, the film has its missteps and awkward moments, audiences everywhere will find this movie very delightful and very black.
Southside with You begins with the lovely Sumpter portraying a spot on Michelle Robinson, preparing for a “non-date” with a summer associate at her law firm. That associate is the ever-so-smooth, chain-smoking Barack Obama from Harvard Law. Though Michelle (continually) insists that their afternoon together is not a date, the two end up traipsing Chicago’s museums and landmarks, discussing life, family, politics and what matters to them most in the world.
This premise is simple enough for Parker and Sumpter to shine in their complex portrayals of the first couple. Parker’s cool demeanor and pattern of speaking is a wonderful replication of the president without being spoof-y of the president’s specific mannerisms. Michelle is level headed and practical with a quick wit. She is also very dedicated to her work and quite aware of how dating an associate (her advisee, no less), might make her look to the liberal, and not so liberal, white folks she works with. This concern is fair, but its dramatization is a bit over the top–Sumpter’s Michelle seems so reluctant at some points in the movie that you almost wonder why she doesn’t just go home.
The emphasis on the “reluctant woman” as a prize to be persuaded and worn down was overwrought, and I have a hard time believing Michelle Obama would ever spend a day with someone while also insisting that she did not want to be there.
The real story is that Barack and Michelle agreed to spend a day together after about a month of “will they, won’t they” tension, and although Michelle really did preface the day by insisting that it was not a date, she was there by her own accord and was enamored with by Barack by the end of the day. This makes a little more sense than the sometimes huffy representation of Michelle in Southside With You, but is perhaps less dramatically interesting.
Still, the rapport between Barack and Michelle in Southside is absolutely beautiful and immediately black, from the opening Janet Jackson song that blares as Barack is heading to Michelle’s home to pick her up, to the paintings they admire at The Art Institute’s Afro-centric exhibit. Here, Barack and Michelle discussed “Sugar Shack,” the painting from Good Times, and quoted Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.”
The couple learns about each other’s backgrounds and families, building an understanding of who they are with each other and with the audience, and highlighting the formative experiences of their youths. Barack discusses his strained relationship with his always absent father while Michelle shares her father’s struggles with multiple sclerosis. They bond over their mutual hopes that they can complete what their fathers started in life.
An afternoon community meeting enables the young future president to demonstrate his public speaking prowess, inspiring a room of black women and men dedicated to improving life in their neighborhoods. After Barack left Chicago for Harvard, another young black man has taken the lead the group of older, mostly female community members. The feminist in me is a tad irked at the thought that this group must be led and guided by a young man. More importantly, though, the scene is set for an uplifting, albeit a little goofy, speech from a triumphantly returning Barack.
Some members of the group are disappointed in the city’s lack of support for a local community center. Barack encourages them not to give up, to compromise and see the city’s side of things. He then attempts to encourage them with a little turn of phrase.
“You switch the letters in no around and what do you have? On. As in carry on! Say it with me now–they say no we say…?”
It comes off as more than a little patronizing, but it was cute, and Michelle, at least, is taken with this version of Barack. The movie ends with a finally convinced Michelle walking along the lakefront with Barack and seeing the brand new Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing. Michelle emerges as the emotional center of the movie, for as she is convinced of the special bond she could have with Barack, audiences too will be overjoyed at the sweet relationship that blossoms on screen.
Southside with You is playing in theaters nationwide. Go see it with friends and loved ones and revel in the joy of black love and friendship.
Photo Credits: IMDB