Full disclosure: at the risk of having my black card temporarily seized, I consciously avoided watching Southside With You for a few reasons.
One, FLOTUS and POTUS are still in office and if I participate in their love story and idolization, how is it any different from propaganda? I’m not comparing President Barack Obama to more delusional, propaganda-churning heads of state, like a certain Mr. Putin of Russia and his weight lifting videos. However, something about watching those viral videos of the president all buddy-buddy with Steph Curry makes my suspicious liberal self a bit fidgety.
However, I, like most black people, have a really difficult time criticizing our first black president and his legacy, especially given the current shitshow that is the 2016 election.
Two, is this really the right time in history to make this film? Won’t some psychic distance and time enhance the perspective?
Three, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. It’s bad enough that the many movies featuring black protagonists are either Tyler Perry films or campy psycho-thrillers with shitty dialogue, where an upper middle class black family is haunted by a seducer with mental health issues. These films usually star Morris Chestnut. See: When The Bough Breaks, The Perfect Guy, Obsessed, etc So when something that doesn’t fall in the Tyler Perry, female-sexual-desire-is-sinful spectrum comes along, I want it to be good. To be really good.
And that is the reason I caved and saw Southside With You—I wanted to support indie black cinema.
The film begins with a young Michelle (80s slick perm and all) prepping for her date with Barack; speaking to her mother. Cut to: Barack chain smoking, speaking to his grandma. All standard pre-first-date stuff. Then he shows up late. She mildly scolds him. They enter his car. It has a sizable hole on its floor, and she is a bit unnerved. They proceed to negotiate the terms of their non-date-date. One of the parties involved (Michelle), is definite about not dating her junior associate (Barack). She is his boss and is rightfully worried about her reputation at the predominantly white law firm.
All humorous and human, but then there is a shift.
I can’t cite specifically when this occurred, but somewhere between viewing the works of Ernie Barnes and reciting Gwendolyn Brooks in perfect sequence, young Barack (Parker Sawyer) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) are catapulted to godlike status. Something about that scene in the museum is transformative. It then begins to feel like watching the film version of the Ramayana or any other film about a prophet realizing his calling. It is worth mentioning that the glimpses of Ernie Barnes’ painting are stunning, and director Richard Tanne does a fantastic job with capturing the beauty of Chicago’s black community. Also, this begins a lovely sequence of contemporary black culture being woven into the narrative. Still though, it seems artificial to recite Gwendolyn Brooks in perfect rhythm on a first date.
After the museum, the pair have conversations about their family histories. Young Barack reveals his troubled relationship with his father and Michelle indicates disappointment at his judgmental tone. Barack says nothing; The date moves continues. She dances to some African drumming, while his face lights up in awe. In the way of the cliche, magically lit, “oh-isn’t-she-amazing” reaction shot.
Then there is the community center meeting. The very purpose of the date. Here Barack gives an epic (and epically long) speech on rallying together, working hard to affect change, pulling bootstraps and what not. Watching young Barack talk about the community center is like hearing him talk about his current role as President. It is pretty impossible to separate the young Barack from President Barack Obama. Especially when young Barack references the first black mayor of Chicago, who couldn’t accomplish much due to bureaucracy. It was like watching him discuss the past 8 years. This seems to be a deliberate choice by the director and I’m not sure I like it. Instances like this prevented me from sitting with the film in real time. I’m reminded that this young man with all this charisma, excellent speech-giving and community idolization will someday be President. And playing devil’s advocate for a hot minute: once again, who has their shit that together in their twenties? The future president, I guess. Still, where is all the self criticism, insecurity and self doubt that comes with youth?
They go to a bar and she now lectures him/gives amateur psychoanalysis about the way he talks about his dad. In what world would one not be alarmed by a date criticizing the anger one feels at a parent’s abandonment? If this were between mere humans, there might be no future correspondence. It could be the end of the date. However, Barack and Michelle are superhuman in this film. They are like Zeus and Athena, but less flawed.
Examining their flaws: Barack chain smokes and has subdued anger because of his father’s absence. Michelle’s are a lot less apparent or non existent. Tika Sumpter plays her with so much restraint that the little Barack doesn’t withhold makes him seem so much more vulnerable in comparison.
By the third act, Barack manages to convince Michelle that their outing is, in fact, a date. After some protest, she agrees, but not before Michelle says, “You think you are real smooth,” yet again.
Post declaration of date, they go to the cinema to watch Do The Right Thing. The film ends with an applause. Then Michelle is confronted with her worst fears. They run into a senior partner of the firm where they are both employed. The senior partner (a middle aged white man) expresses his discomfort at Mookie destroying his employer’s pizza shop. Barack sugarcoats Mookie’s motive and the senior partner nods in agreement. The senior partner leaves, acknowledges his fondness of Barack and tells Michelle “to take care of this young man,” in a tone with a trace of innuendo. Michelle becomes upset and demands to be taken home. This scene reminds me of how heteronormative the roles of the president and first lady are, and, the general shit women have to put up with in the workplace.
Barack apologizes. He buys her ice cream. They kiss for the first time on a bench. They go their separate ways and sit on their individual sofas at home. The film ends with Barack reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, but unable to concentrate. A slight smile on his blissed out face.
Overall, Southside With You is a lot like listening to your parent’s retelling of their first date. All the moments rooted in scandalous details and awkward intimacy are left out for a PG version that teaches you about their politics and mutual sense of responsibility. It isn’t until years later that you typically find out the juicy details from an over-eager aunty or friend of your parents.
This is not a pure romance about two young people falling for each other’s flaws. Rather it is a time capsule of a day in which two young Chicagoans discuss their aspirations. There could have been more talk about ideology, personal histories, vulnerabilities. However, the seesaw between wanting to give back and working a corporate job to pay the bills, stole the film. Much like it does in real life sometimes.
Given the climate of the 90s, the crack epidemic, the increase in gang violence and lack of opportunity for lots of black people, could a young black couple really indulge in ideology and free associative vulnerability?
Samiat Salami’s life goal is to earn enough money to hire someone else to write her bio. n person, she is the African girl with the confusing accent. She is currently writing and developing a web series about two ambiguously ethnic girl-women — it is named EASY. She can be found browsing ethical clothing shops she can’t afford in Oakland or on her therapist’s couch. If you know the answer to what it all means, ‘it’ in this situation meaning life, let her know at samiatsalami.com. If you also want to pay her to write more rants on the internet, that’s cool too. Instagram/@SamiatSalami