Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Southside With You

Grade : B+ Year : 2016 Director : Richard Tanne Running Time : 1hr 24min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

I think one of the big questions I had going into “Southside With You” is, “Would this film be as successful if it were not about Barack and Michelle Obama?” That’s an important question, because honestly, it’s quite a hook for a romantic drama to hang its hat on. The most important question, however, is if the film works in general, and I would argue that it does. The film(s) that came most to mind while watching it were Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, wherein we followed Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine as they got to know each other (in “Sunrise”), caught up with one another (in “Sunset”), and finally learned to love one another unconditionally (in “Midnight”). Here, we are treated to a dramatization of the Obama’s first date together, and by focusing on that, writer-director Richard Tanne assures us of a story that gives us insight on the future President and First Laby of the United States without giving us a sanitized version of them. They are simply people who spend the day together, and their back-and-forth is funny, enlightening and touching in a way that is universal. I can see some of myself and my wife were when we were first dating in the way Barack and Michelle interact here. That is vital to the film’s success, and that’s the case whether you’re talking about the “Before” movies or a film about two of the most substantial political figures of our time getting to know one another. That is a credit to what Tanne has come up with here.

The film begins as the two get ready in their respective homes. Barack (Parker Sawyers, who looks and sounds so much like him it’s kind of freaky) is alone, smoking a cigarette and taking a call from his aunt while waiting for the last minute to leave his home, while Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is getting ready as she talks to her parents while insisting that this is not a date. Barack pulls up in his beaten up car, with a hole in the floor board and spraying something to try and hide the smell of tobacco. Michelle calls him out for being late, and they go for their day together. They both work at the same law firm- Barack as a summer associate, and Michelle as his assistant- and Michelle is adamant with this “smooth-talking brother” that this is not a date, especially after his cover is blown and the community meeting he invited her to is revealed to be later in the day. Reluctantly, Michelle agrees to spend the day with him, and they get to know each other. We recognize some of the details, but the words they speak are all Tanne’s, and the conversation hits on some touchy subjects. Michelle questions Barack’s anger towards his father, and Barack listens and processes what she has to say about her family while at an exhibit of Ernie Barnes paintings. When we get to the meeting, Barack has set himself up to impress her as he talks to a group of community organizers about how to get a community center for their kids up and running even though they have met resistance from political leaders. Tanne’s words are coming out of his mouth, but we recognize the intelligence and passion they are delivered with, and Michelle is justly impressed. Barack hasn’t sealed the deal, however, as a screening of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” they attend, wherein they run into one of the partners they work for, illustrates. Barack gets them out of the awkwardness of discussing the film’s controversial ending with the white partner and his wife, but Michelle is mortified about the fallout that may happen at work when the partner condescendingly tells her to “keep this guy happy,” meaning Barack. For her, this day is over, but the future POTUS has an idea that will assure him of making this a day to remember for both of them.

A complaint people have had coming out of the theater after “Southside With You” is that they feel like it ends abruptly. I do not feel like it does. If you were expecting to see their entire relationship leading up to their current place in the White House, which they reside in with their two beautiful daughters, then you are missing the point. This is a film about two people in the middle of figuring themselves out, and how this one day helps them do that. The pleasure is not in seeing them live happily ever after, but seeing how they come to know one another and respect each other. I will say that it’s hard to remove ourselves from the knowledge of who these two are now, and on a filmmaking critique, I felt like the score by Stephen James Taylor was too pronounced on the soundtrack, but it’s the conversation, and the ebb and flow of the day when Barack and Michelle started their life together, that makes “Southside With You” a winning proposition.

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