Both the Clinton and Bush Administrations have received invective treatments by Hollywood’s biggest hitters. In Primary Colors (1998), esteemed director Mike Nichols delivered a darkly satirical account of Bill Clinton’s scandalized 1992 campaign, with John Travolta channeling Clinton’s infamous reputation as “Slick Willy”. A decade later, in W (2008), Hollywood politico Oliver Stone penned a tragedian portrait of George W. Bush (an extra-hammy Josh Brolin) as an immensely privileged man-child who sought the presidency to earn his father’s approval. Each were mainstream origin films that explained the national horrors to come: for the Clinton Administration, there would be a second presidential term pocked with scandalous adultery and a grossly unregulated housing market; for the Bush Adminstration, the US would go on to experience eight years of rash decision-making culminating in precipitous military escalation and a historic financial market crash.
Unlike these earlier works, the newest entry in presidential send-offs, Southside With You, lacks major Hollywood pedigree. Produced on a shoe-string budget of $1.5 million, Southside With You is directed and written by relatively unknown first time feature director Richard Tanne. The feature actors — Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama, and Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson — are both relatively unknown. The story itself is modestly scaled: on the surface, this is a walking date film shot on digital with some evident neophyte filmmaking.
The camerawork has a roughly amateurish feel, particularly in the film’s afternoon park scenes. Tanne’s relentless efforts to close-up on Barack, each a glaringly obvious attempt to humanize him, all too often crop off the top of his head. A few times, Tanne insists on placing either Barack or Michelle out of focus to highlight the other. This is unnecessary and distracting: both are heavily involved in the same moment, and the simple placement of one at the forefront of the frame would have better represented both characters’ emotions. At other times, tunnel shades are underexposed, and there’s a fluorescent green glow to the trees which screams of gaudy computer effects — not great for a nostalgic film which takes place in 1989.
Nevertheless, the Obama Administration is a testament to one’s ability to rise from progressive grassroots politics to The White House, and a small scale indie is to some extent an ideal medium for the Obama family’s origin story. Indeed, much of Southside With You’s homespun indie charm dovetails nicely with a future president who, contrary to his predecessors, did not launch his career from conservative family pedigree or from a political machine. In this regard, the audience may interpret Tanne’s mistakes and budgetary limitations as byproducts of youthful ambition with a promise of greater things to come.
Tanne credibly portrays Barack and Michelle as two sophisticated, highly sensitive young professionals trying to find their place as associates in an upscale (and insufferably patrician) corporate law firm, which offers unsatisfying opportunities to engage their respective passions for public advocacy. As two mid-20s black Americans, Barack and Michelle’s struggle takes on yet another complex layer, as they must determine how their race factors into their professional and romantic decisions.
Against this background, placing Southside With You in the same vein as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, mischaracterizes the former. With all due respect to Celeste and Jesse– two early-20s college students who indulge in a hormonally charged feast of the senses on a night long rendezvous in France — Michelle and Barack have more grounded issues to contend with. Barack has to balance quickly paying off student loans with spending more time as a community organizer. Southside With You also focuses heavily on Michelle’s skeptical heart for good reason: she solemnly explains to Barack that as a black female professional, she’s particularly concerned with being highlighted as a minority statistic as opposed to being evaluated strictly on the merits of her own work (according to the National Association for Law Placement, minority women only constituted ten percent of all associates and one percent of partners in a sample of 1,500 law firms).
In this regard, Southside With You transcends “date” film terrain to a nuanced character study of the onset of the United States’ future presidential family. For Michelle to risk her professional reputation by dating an office colleague, he must exhibit more than mere cuteness or intellectual promise. Barack must convey sincere empathy toward Michelle’s struggle, and respect her desire to autonomously cultivate her identity in a world all too ready to label (and limit) her. This is a welcome change of pace in a romantic film and, for that matter, our political arena, wherein each successful suitor often fails to have a true character defining moment.
To this end, Southside With You is also more than an Obama family imitation, even if there are elements of it throughout the film. Yes, Barack’s intellect and worldliness are well known, and so the opening of his courtship to Michelle — an edifying trip to an Ernie Barnes museum exhibit — may spark Michelle’s interest, but not necessarily illuminate her on Barack’s character. The same can be said of Barack’s community rally speech midway through the film, which, while an enthusiastic paean to his oratory prowess, doesn’t necessarily indicate how he would treat Michelle in a relationship.
But Southside With You’s narrative structure and Tika Sumpter’s measured performance don’t allow these early overtures to carry the same romantic weight as they might in more conventional films. The bar for Barack is higher, requiring discovery of something even deeper within himself.
Southside with You doesn’t disclose Barack and Michelle’s personal revelations until its final act, and they are a bigger payoff than in a more obvious “successful first date” plotline. What a young Barack and Michelle learn through each other is a constant source of surprise, and it dovetails nicely with a future presidential family the world will remember fondly as a high point in the United States’ national character.