Oliver Stone’s W., which premiered less than a month before the 2008 election, was about the life — or a particular period in the life — of a sitting president. Well, here we are again. It’s close to the end of the second term of President Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American commander in chief, and Southside With You arrives, as if on cue, capturing his first date with the woman who would become his (and our) first lady.
This first social encounter becomes an overtly political tale — one that I would dare to argue might not have such fraught importance if the focus had been any of the Caucasian occupiers of the Oval Office. Granted, they all — every last one of them — were political beasts. But, outside of our first five leaders and potentially revolutionary figures like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, none of these men bore the historic and political weight so obviously on their persons. A black president is an example, by definition, due to his position as the signature “race” man.
So we watch Barack (Parker Sawyers) as he, in full-on casual charm-offensive mode, prepares himself to pick up Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) for what she argues (repeatedly, throughout the movie) is not a first date. He talks to his white grandmother who skirts around the question of whether or not he’s going out with a black woman. He smokes, walks out to his beat-up hooptie, jams to Janet Jackson (“Miss You Much” booms from his car stereo) and arrives late, as he is apparently wont to do. Through patented misdirection, he convinces her to join him for a quick tour of a local African-American gallery and subtly psychoanalyzes her (picking at the racial burden she, perhaps, too proudly carries), while deftly sidestepping his own conflicted racial baggage.
In this feature film debut, director Richard Tanne caters to the sense we have of today’s Obama as an intellectual, at ease with the entitlement that knowledge can confer and with his purposeful debating skills and masterful use of language, which he employs in an offhanded way by cloaking thoughtful consideration in the guise of familiar conversational engagement. He gains strength from Sawyers, who doesn’t seem to be performing or imitating the man we know now so much as living comfortably in that man’s shoes.
And it is that moment, back during the summer of 1989, that lays the foundation for how to truly evaluate both this historic president and his first lady in the here and now. That hot summer, for those not born then or those not versed in film lore, was the season of Do the Right Thing, the highly politicized release from Spike Lee, which dramatized the volcanic churning of racial tensions in a not-so-fictionalized and quite superheated New York, where police-community relations could lead to conflict, death and cinematically choreographed rioting and looting.
Michelle and Barack in this movie, toward the end of what she has finally accepted as being a date, walk out of a screening of that film and into a discussion with a white partner from their Chicago law firm. Initially, Michelle suffers a moment of humiliation over the fact that she will have to explain why she is socializing with likely the only other African-American lawyer (the Harvard Law School student she’s been assigned to supervise) at the firm, but then together they have to tiptoe across the racial minefield as they explain away any fears of the explosive finale in Lee’s film coming to life.
Barack, as he has done countless times now as president, assuages white concerns over the possibility of a black uprising. He wisely opines that the trashcan thrown at the pizzeria window in Do the Right Thing was a calculated move to shift the release of anger away from a potential act that could result in the loss of life and to something that causes mere property damage.
Once the partner saunters off with peace of mind restored, Barack admits to Michelle that the frustration of the act had nothing to do with saving any white man’s butt.
Southside With You doesn’t need to preach, shout or wave its racial bona fides like a battle-worn banner. Instead, it embraces us, conspiratorially acknowledging a shared understanding that change requires fighting for hope and love in every moment. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (PG-13) Grade: A-