Southside with You and all the images you see in this review are owned by Miramax and Roadside Attractions
Directed by Richard Tanne
Well I guess if Oliver Stone got to make a George W Bush movie during his last year of office, I guess it’s not THAT outlandish for the same to happen to our first black president, though admittedly I get the feeling this one isn’t going to have as much beef with the sitting president as Oliver Stone did when he made his movie. Now that I think of it, an Oliver Stone Obama movie would be pretty interesting. I guess we’ll have to see if he shows up in Snowden. ANYWAY, does this film about Barrack and Michelle’s first date manage to fill us with warm fuzzies about the soon to be former and definitely future presidents of the Unite States, or is this just a thinly veiled propaganda piece to help preserve the legacy of a President whose career really doesn’t need such blatant evangelism? Let’s find out!!
The movie isn’t all that complicated as it really is just one day with Barrack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) as they go out on the town in 1989 Chicago. Michelle though doesn’t believe this to be an ACTUAL date, so I guess that will serve as our major conflict as Barrack tries to warm himself up to her, but she does have pretty legitimate reasons to not let this outing go any further than it needs to; particularly the fact that she’s his supervisor at a law firm that she’s worked her ass off to get a modicum of respect at. Still, there’s no denying that Barrack charm which he puts to full effect as they travel all over scenic Chicago (or at least the good parts of Chicago) while also helping a local community come together to fight for a Community Center to be built in their neighborhood! Can Barrack manage to win Michelle’s heart before the day draws to a close? Will Michelle be forced to choose between her career and a guy who seems to be a perfect match for her? How do they not run out of things to say to each other!? Their first date is like twelve hours long!!
I really liked the movie, and it’s kind of refreshing to get something this unabashedly upbeat and saccharin that ALSO doesn’t feel like cheap manipulation. Well… for the most part, as it IS kind of impossible to separate this film from the real life (and very powerful) figures that it is based on and are being portrayed in a positive light, but the strength of this movie is that it’s not just about them. The movie’s title indicates this as it’s not just Barrack and Michelle’s Awesome Date Night, but is equally about Chicago itself, though I get the feeling it’s still kind of idealized and that things weren’t this nice even in 1989. Then again, Spike Lee wasn’t exactly portraying it realistically in his dark and brilliant film Chiraq, so maybe an example on the other side of the spectrum isn’t such a big deal. To my shame, I have yet to actually see a Tyler Perry movie (I’ll probably have to make up for that by seeing that really awful looking Halloween one coming out), but a critic I greatly respect made a very strong defense of them (or at least the non-zany ones) by the virtue of them portraying black people as just people. Not ghetto, not trying to be white, just being themselves and putting forth a positive view of them even in crappy movies. Now there’s no doubt that other filmmakers have done that in their own ways (the aforementioned Spike Lee for one), but this feels like the perfect evolution of what that critic was looking for. A really sweet and lovable movie that doesn’t shy away from them being Black and all the baggage that can come with that (especially for Michelle who has that PLUS being a woman working at a predominantly white law firm), but also shows the joy and privileges (not in the Check Your Privilege sense) of being a part of that community. Of course, this is a twenty something white dude saying that so you’ll probably want to take anything I say with a grain of salt (as well as the fact that this written and directed by a white guy), but that’s what I got out of it and I ended up enjoying it a lot.
There’s not a whole lot too this movie as it’s more or less Michelle and Barrack going to a couple of different places as they ask questions and try to get a better sense of who the other is. I can’t attest to the accuracy of this movie in terms of what ACTUALLY happened on that date (the hole in Barrack’s car is supposedly true) but it’s not really what’s important here. Maybe they did talk about his absent father on their first date, maybe he didn’t. The writing is sharp regardless of whether it’s word for word what happened, and does provide a great context to the people we know they will eventually be. They’re two interesting people who you can tell are going places (just from what is presented in the movie and not because we know who they are) and are spending a day together in 1989 Chicago. Speaking of which, another thing that is purported to be true or not (I thought it was bullshit while watching it, but this seems to be a fact) is that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a prominent part of the background of the story and eventually is brought to the forefront once Michelle and Barrack go to see it towards the end. Now as shameful as it is, I hadn’t seen Do the Right Thing before seeing this movie (that has since been correct, so you can all be quiet!) but what little of the movie they do show is pretty devastating stuff. I had no idea that someone was choked to death by the cops (SPOILER ALERT!), but seeing that kind of imagery is pretty devastating considering how poignant the film still is to this day and how eerily similar that is to the video we all saw of Eric Garner. You know, that video that WASN’T in a fictional movie.
The movie wants to be about much more than just two famous people meeting for the first time, and that ambition (along with the fantastic acting and writing) is why this is something that I think people will remember. It does more than it really needs to, considering that it could have just sold itself on the true story aspect and be done with it, but the filmmakers decided not to stop there. Whether it’s the art of Ernie Barnes being prominently displayed at one of the art shows (naturally Barrack was a fan of Good Times where the artist’s work was prominently featured) or the aforementioned Do the Right Thing, there’s a lot going on under the surface to flesh out the world that these two people inhabit and how that world has shaped them into who they are and who they will be in twenty years.
However, the movie is not without its flaws; the big one being that for a movie that is this light and is trying so hard to be a romantic fluff piece, it can’t escape the fact that it’s tied to real world political figures which adds a lot of weight that the movie does not want to acknowledge. How they could have addressed that in a movie set twenty years before he did anything controversial is beyond me, but it’s something that’s impossible to avoid. What doesn’t help their case though is that they still feel the need to cheekily reference Obama’s presidency and how he has governed during his two terms in office; the most blunt of these being a scene where he speaks at a community meeting that is having trouble getting the city council to approve a Community Center in their neighborhood. The message here is very simplistic and it comes off as a lionization of his Presidency as well as his attempts to reach across the aisle and try to work with the obstinate Republicans; the results of which can be argued passionately by all sorts of people. My point though is that the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too as the film itself brings up these points and has a very clear opinion of the man, which makes it impossible to view this in a non (or at least not overtly) political light which I don’t feel is what the filmmakers wanted.
On top of that, the movie has some pacing issues which are kind of forgivable considering most dates (especially ones supposedly based on a true story) don’t follow the standard three act structure, and if they did it might have felt contrived. However, there’s an odd point in the movie where the story comes to a very natural stopping point… and then goes on for another twenty minutes. It just kinda threw me off; first because it would have meant the movie was barely over an hour, and then again when it turns out that WASN’T the end. I’ll also cop to the movie being overly sentimental and sappy, and while it did work for me, there are moments where it gets to be a bit much. Going back to the community meeting, there’s this supremely corny line that Barrack has (did you know that NO backwards is ON?) which I was groaning at, but everyone in the scene was looking at him like he’s the Pope and he just got a direct message from the big man himself. There are moments like that throughout the movie, but I’ll honestly take cringe worthy sincerity over the manufactured and cynical version we see in movies like Mother’s Day.
I don’t know how much this movie will hold up once these two are no longer prominent political figures (which granted won’t be until after Michelle’s two terms in 2024 and 2028), but there’s enough here outside of these two being Mr President and First Lady that it should still appeal to people who just want to watch a good date movie. Maybe I was just in the right mood to see a sappy love movie, considering the summer we just went through, but sometimes that’s more than necessary to cleanse the palette and give a bit of variety. Was this movie made in the right place and the right time? Sure, but I think it’ll still have some legs even after that. It may not be worth checking out in the theater as it is a rather small movie, but it’s a pretty good alternative to the post summer stragglers and whatever the hell DC is doing right now.
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