Southside With You is a dramatization of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, in 1989, during which the Kenyan-born pretender took his future bride to a mosque and the two bonded over plans to make Whitey suffer — either by establishing sharia, legalizing gay marriage, or doing both at the same time, however contradictory that might be.
I kid. This movie actually peddles the version concocted by Bill Ayers for his second “Obama” book, The Audacity of Hope. In this version, Obama (who has just finished his first year at Harvard Law School) is a summer associate at a Chicago corporate law firm, where he’s advised by a second-year associate, Michelle Robinson. He really likes her, but, because of their professional relationship, she’s reluctant to go on an official “date.” He asks her out so many times, though, that he wears her down.
It’s weird to watch a biopic in which the subjects aren’t just alive but in the White House, and in which everything they say and do is freighted with politics. There might even be people out there who think the first paragraph of this review isn’t sarcasm — Donald Trump’s definition of sarcasm having turned out to be rather elastic. Other people might wonder at the possible political ramifications of having Obama admit onscreen (as opposed to in elitist print) to spending high school in a “cloud” of weed.
Southside With You plays as if the young writer-director Richard Tanne felt compelled to parse every word his characters say, which means they don’t cut loose the way the characters do in fictional date movies like Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. It’s all a little wholesome for my taste. But that might well be how it was. And the movie’s mix of romance and politics — both African-American and feminist politics — has a naïve kind of charm. The movie is charming even when it’s stilted, and it’s often stilted.
The dramatic hook is that Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) are from very different worlds. He’d spent much of his childhood with his white grandparents in Hawaii, while she’s from a tight, working-class South Side black family, with whom she still lives. So what does he propose for a first date? They go to an Afrocentric art exhibit, a meeting in a local church where he’d spent time as a community organizer, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. That’s quite an Afro slate!
It’s too bad that director Tanne dances around the idea that this intensely African-American date is Barack’s attempt to prove to Michelle that he’s not some white-bred, Harvard-educated, corporate lawyer-type — that his identity and his future rest with the black side of his heritage, and that pursuing her after a life of dating mostly white women is a sign of where his true heart is.
You can infer that from some of the stories the movie’s Barack tells, but it’s fuzzy. To understand the seesaw of his life — Indonesia, Hawaii, Columbia, three years as a Chicago community organizer, a trip to Africa to meet his late father’s relatives, and Harvard Law School — you’d be better off reading Obama’s painstaking dissections of his own motives in his (or Bill Ayers’s) first book, Dreams From My Father.
Southside With You is not quite a hagiography. For one thing, you see that the young Obama smoked like a chimney. He lights up in the first and last scenes and in nearly every scene in between. I hate that, frankly — I’m with the people who say that when glamorous characters smoke in movies it can’t help but glamorize the poison itself, and that’s a terrible message. But the truth is the truth. (Obama has allegedly quit, although some people suspect he’s still a closet smoker. Some people also suspect he founded ISIS. I don’t know — it’s what some people say.)
At least Parker Sawyers makes that smoking a character point: It’s how this Barack steadies himself, chills himself out. There’s a lot of smart thinking in Sawyers’s impersonation. He captures Obama’s odd rhythms, especially those confident stammers, during which we wait for him to craft the exact right phrases and marvel at how sexy self-restraint and logic can be. I’m sure that’s Obama’s hope anyway — that he’s the sexy Mr. Spock. Michelle does everything she can to appear skeptical or at least unmoved. Sumpter seems arch in some of her early scenes, but she gives the movie its fiercely honest center: We see Obama through her appraising eyes. And we know that she’ll have battles of her own to come, in a profession where she first has to prove herself as a woman and then has to start all over as an African-American.
My only problem with Parker Sawyers is cosmetic. He’s dark-skinned, the same as Sumpter’s Michelle, and so he doesn’t visually evoke a man who comes from two worlds. Since so much has been made about Obama’s race and ethnicity, I’m curious to see if Sawyers’s complexion is distracting to anyone else. Let me burn my boats and say I wish Sumpter had been taller, too. Michelle is nearly six feet tall; in heels, she is eye-level with her spouse. Throughout her life, her tallness made her stick out. (And while we’re at it, I still can’t accept the diminutive Tom Cruise as the six-foot-six-inch Jack Reacher.)
In the movie’s central sequence in the church/community center, Michelle is surrounded by middle-aged women who tell her how great Barack is and, in one case, how he mentored and inspired a woman’s young son to escape the violent streets and join the military. It’s a borderline campaign commercial when Obama gets up to speak and makes the case — when confronted by the anger of residents over lack of funding — for a non-confrontational approach, for putting oneself in one’s opponents shoes. Then again, that really was the place where Obama honed his considerable political and rhetorical skills. And the scene is somewhat lightened by Michelle’s realization that it’s a setup to win her over. She thinks he’s too smooth by half — but the half, at least, is on the side of the angels.
The last part of Southside With You is a botched opportunity. Barack and Michelle are blown away by the cops’ murder of Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing, but outside the theater there’s a poorly written scene in which they bump into a senior partner at the firm and Barack eases the clueless white man’s discomfort over the climactic riot with a bit of flimflam. (He lies that Mookie’s throwing the barrel through the window was an attempt to save Sal and Sal’s sons from the mob’s inevitable wrath.) What we don’t see is Barack and Michelle engage with Spike Lee’s central conflict, between the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King (which we’ve heard espoused by Obama at that community meeting) and the angry militancy of Malcolm X, which Lee implicitly endorses. This isn’t just a quibble: The movie seems to be leading up to that discussion. Instead there’s a fight over the senior partner’s unconscious sexism and then, finally, a kiss.
Is that a spoiler — that they kiss? For all its many clunks and wobbles, something comes through vividly in Southside With You: These two kids have terrific chemistry. Michelle for Senate in 2018?