Movies We Like
Southside with You
Maybe the best thing to emerge out of the Armageddon that is our current state of politics is an exciting new budding movie subgenre: the Barack Obama dramas. (Remember kids, it only takes two films for an official subgenre to be declared). First up is the wonderful Southside with You, which chronicles one night in Chicago in 1989. As far as modern romance goes it's an important night, even if it’s just platonic at first. It’s the would-be first date between twenty-eight-year-old law firm summer intern Barack, on a break from Harvard Law, and his supervisor, law firm associate Michelle Robinson, then twenty-five (who, of course, would one day become superstar first lady Michelle Obama). And then rounding out the Obama origin story is another film: a Netflix original called Barry, which follows the young future president while attending graduate school at Columbia in New York. Both films give sneak peeks as to what would make our future hero tick.
The smooth-talking, street-smart and cigarette-smoking Barack (Parker Sawyers) had in mind a date; the much more serious and seemingly ambitious Michelle (Tika Sumpter) supposedly thought they were just going to a community meeting. Instead, Barack first leads Michelle on a stroll down Michigan Avenue and a stop at the Chicago Institute of Arts, where he impresses her with his knowledge of the work of black artist Ernie Barnes and his iconic piece The Sugar Shack (familiar to pop culture nerds from being featured in the credits to television's Good Times and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s ’76 album, I Want You). But Barack really gets to impress when they get to the meeting, where black neighbors are disappointed the city has turned down their request for a community center. Barack woos the crowd with his speech-giving magic. Interestingly, instead of going for the usual and obvious us-vs-them take, he asks the crowd to think about the city’s point of view and what the two views have in common (shades of his famous 2004 Democratic Convention speech, that really put him on the map nationally). Here Michelle has two evolutionary moments -- and the film really is through her eyes -- first, she sees the political gifts that Barack has and secondly, after years at Princeton, Harvard and working corporate law, she realizes how out-of-touch she has become with the daily problems of the poor. Barack inspires her to get involved.
As for historical accuracy, the one event in the film that has been debunked is the community meeting. It didn’t happen until a couple dates later. In the final stretch of the date, the couple goes to see Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and then run into a white law partner who clumsily tries to discuss the controversial movie. Now, if anything, this feels like a screenwriter's concoction. But no, the Obamas and historians have confirmed it to be true. (It’s just so beautifully ’89.) And then Barack charms the old white guy and his wife, while Michelle is pushed back as a black woman into second-class citizen status, making the moment feel especially truthful.
Though not officially a two-person film, Sumpter and Sawyers carry the load and are riveting. (Both have been around, with lots of credits. This is his first big lead, while the utterly beautiful Sumpter has been on the verge of breaking out for years. This should lead to more high profile roles for both.) The film has obviously been compared to the Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy Before films, though while those films are just a couple self-involved Gen-Xers wandering around Europe talking gibberish, Southside with You works as a time capsule (’89 looks fun!), a biopic, and a political film. Anytime the two discuss race and goals the film is never less than stirring. Michelle’s whole reason for why she can’t be seen with Barack -- as a black woman, dating the first cute black guy to come into the firm would make her a joke -- is heartbreaking, as she has to work doubly hard to be taken seriously, both as a lawyer and intellectually. Michelle comes off as a striver, someone who has never failed at anything, someone who could frankly use a little Barack in her life.
Barack’s inner turmoil about his own mixed race and his issues with his absent African father are touched on in Southside with You, but they are at the heart of Barry (directed by Vikram Gandhi, director of the kooky doc Kumare, about a guy who poses as an Indian guru to show followers what a scam gurus are). Twenty-one-year-old Barack (Devon Terrell, outstanding in his first film role) goes by Barry and has a real coming-of-age first year at Columbia. He plays a lot of basketball, dates a rich white student (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch), parties with and navigates hostility from both sides of New York’s racial divide, has a fruitful visit from his hippie mother, Ann Dunham (played by Ashley Judd) and is haunted by his non-relationship with his father. Barry can be enjoyed less as a Barack bio (I have no idea how much is based on real life), but more in the tradition of The Paper Chase, as just a good coming-of-age movie. Both films have their moments of heavy-handedness and occasionally spoon-feeding the viewer instead of letting the audience absorb things for themselves. But for this viewer, this has been the rare occasion when I am already ready to rewatch both films. (I look forward to comparing what I’ve gleaned from each flick). I’m also looking forward to more Obama movies. (I mean, there have been dozens of Winston Churchill movies, with more coming). What happened between New York and Chicago for Barack? And what about those early years of marriage? Bring on the cottage industry! If they can hold up to these first two films, this is my new James Bond series.