A twentysomething woman living at home prepares for a day out. Her parents tease her as she fixes her hair. Is it a date? No, just a work associate, a Harvard law student with the firm for the summer, taking her to a community meeting to discuss “broken faucets and underfunded schools”. Across town a man in an undershirt chats with his grandmother by telephone in-between cigarettes and says, “yes, her skin is of the darker persuasion.” This is how Barack met Michelle, and Southside With You will detail, in rather exaggerated, one-act-play form, how they fell in love.
He picks her up in his busted down car (forget the scuffs on Adlai Stevenson’s soles, the interior of Barack Obama’s late 80s ride had a full-blown hole in the floor) and – surprise – turns out the event isn’t for a few hours. Barack’s been haranguing Michelle for a date for some time but, since she is technically his advisor at the corporate firm where they work, she has demurred. Some might argue his tenacity wasn’t exactly appropriate for the workplace, but Michelle’s true reason to decline invitations was more straightforward: if she, a black woman, were to date the first cute black man at the office, it would just get too many tongues wagging.
We learn all this early on because this movie is somewhat allergic to subtlety. Characters face forward and blast one another with sincere oratory, stating precisely what they feel as if they are under oath or shot-up with sodium pentathol. But as one’s ear adjusts to the, let’s call it “stylised dialogue,” it preps you for some pretty striking speeches by the third act. Michelle may protest at the start that “this is not a date” but by the time they visit an art gallery, eat sandwiches in the park, hit that community meeting, stroll along Lake Michigan, get beers, argue over Stevie Wonder albums, share their dreams, catch Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, squirm (for just an instant) under the gaze of their white colleagues and finally get ice cream, you know these two are going to be together forever.
To quote the 43rd President of the United States, let me be clear: there’s something admittedly odd about Southside For You’s very existence. Films glorifying sitting leaders is a little more North Korea’s bag. It is, without question, pure hagiography. That said, by all accounts Barack and Michelle Obama are warm, caring people. Considering the absurd lengths the rightwing has gone to defenestrate the man, and have yet to uncover any monkey business, it’s fair to say that their love is true.
The surface-level comparison for the film is Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walking around various cities and falling in love) but that level of depth is very much lacking in writer-director Richard Tanne’s script. But Southside With You uses our affection for the Obamas to add urgency in the otherwise simple script. We want these two to get together, and we want them to say things like: “I just want to do more to help out.”
The heart of the film, and the sequence that may cause some true believers to retrieve their hankies, is seeing young Barack rallying the disenfranchised members of the The Gardens, explaining that the way toward any goal is not to hate their adversary, but to try and understand them, and to switch the letters of every bureaucratic “no” into a rally “on”. Knowing his prowess as a public speaker, did he invite Michelle there just to see him strut his stuff? Hard to tell, but when Spike Lee’s Mookie hurls a trash can through the window of Sal’s Famous to rage against injustice, he’s also helping our hero Barack get the girl. It’s a pretty astounding moment in meta-cinema.