Love. Hate. Relationships.
Author Chuck Klosterman appeared on a recent episode of Filmspotting, in part to discuss his latest book, But What If We're Wrong: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. During the interview, the author and hosts Josh Larsen and Adam Kempenaar walked through their ultimate "Top 5 Films" list; not their favorite films, mind you, or the ones they considered "the best", but the ones they believe might transcend cinema itself, and be appreciated by a society 300 years hence, whose concept of movies as we know them today is as tenuous as our collective appreciation of centuries-old Ugandan pottery.
Each participant was tasked with coming up with five films that best represent the art form of cinema, films whose significance is not (necessarily) tied to critical reception, box office performance, or the immediate social context of their release. Could the importance of The Matrix, for example, lie less in The Wachowskis' furthering of special effects or their presaging our dependence on virtual reality, and more in the way the film and filmmakers addressed changing attitudes about human sexuality at the turn of the century? This layered and lively conversation helped me give voice to something that had bothered me for weeks about Richard Tanne's feature directorial debut, Southside with You.
Some critics have compared the film to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. They're probably right,* but the characters at hand aren't your typical meet-cute movie couple: they're twentysomething versions of Barack and Michelle Obama. Tanne (who also wrote the screenplay) presents the First Couple's first date, taking us back to the sweltering summer of 1989, when the future President was a summer intern at a Chicago law firm; his wife-to-be was his advisor; and Do the Right Thing was igniting all-new conversations about race in America. We walk with Barack and Michelle as they meander from an African art exhibit to a community meeting to a screening of Do the Right Thing (with small stops in between), all the while getting to know them as they get to know each other.
I enjoyed Southside with You immensely and, for whatever it's worth, the film will likely end up on my year-end "Best of 2016" list. But I wrestled with it in the moment, and still now as I type this. I even struggled to keep my head straight during a press conference with the filmmakers a couple weeks ago--caught between wanting to completely give myself over to a warm story made by passionate people, and picking at a splinter of uncertainty that Tanne and company had slipped between the deep, hard-to-reach fibers of my brain. The question at hand isn't whether or not Southside with You is a good movie (it's irrefutably that), but to what extent it's good on its own merits, and to what degree it is elevated by the meta-context that overshadows it.
I'm jealous of Chuck Klosterman's hypothetical future society, which doesn't revere (much less think about) movies as much as we do today. Let's set aside the requisite qualifiers of wardrobe, acting styles, and other aesthetic concerns that, to some degree, challenge anyone trying to appreciate art from a far-bygone era, and assume that people of the twenty-fourth century might watch Southside with You with as much ease as they'd enjoy a piece of (their own) contemporary entertainment. Let's also assume it's possible for these future-humans to be denied a key bit of information that Richard Tanne also omits from his film: that his characters will someday become the President and First Lady of the United States. In this context-free scenario, does Southside with You hold up as a charming love story with its own identity? Does it also deliver the same punch as a light drama about two off-brand, young idealists caught between pursuing the spiritual rewards of fighting for the disadvantaged and settling for the security of high-paid Corporate Law? In short, does the movie work at all if the audience doesn't know that "Barack and Michelle" are the "Barack and Michelle"?
I think so, but there's a lot of meta-baggage to sort through.
For starters, Parker Sawyers looks and sounds a lot like Barack Obama. I mean, a lot. At several points during the film, I had to remind myself that Southside with You is not, in fact, a documentary. In addition to the actor's physical resemblance to POTUS 44, and his ability to slip right into key mannerisms and vocal tics, Tanne's script conveys a level of conversational intimacy that sounds like much of the dialogue was transcribed, rather than fabricated. Tika Sumpter, who plays Michelle, strays a bit into "impression" territory with her voice work, a distraction that faded as the characters became more fully realized.
There's one key area where Sawyers falls short, but it's not his fault. Michelle makes a joke about Barack's large ears, comparing him to Dumbo the Elephant. We've heard variations of this line since 2004, along with Barack's unofficial branding of his own outsider status ("I was the skinny kid with a funny name"). These ideas of Obama's unconventional physical appearance pop up here and there in Southside with You.
"Unconventional physical appearance" is not a dig, and it's not code for something else. It's a straightforward reference to the fact that Barack Obama, though very handsome (it's literally his middle name), is kind of an odd-looking dude. I've met both Parker and POTUS 44, and can say that Tanne and company did an incredible job landing a talented performer whose resemblance is uncanny, but whose perfect features smooth out the slightly odd ones that make the Leader of the Free World more interesting to look at than outright attractive. Sawyers is outright attractive; he's not remarkably "skinny" so much as lean and well toned; and he doesn't have big ears--which may lead to some head-scratching on the part of our future audience.
Compare this to one of the less distracting elements: Barack smokes like a chimney throughout, and can only refer to his early schooling as being lost in "a haze of smoke". Also, and I could be wrong, but I believe I saw the famous hat in the background of Barack's establishing scene--the one in the photos that came out during the '08 campaign, when Obama was revealed to have been a youthful stoner. These meta-nods of past/future contrast are fun, but they don't eat into the notion of Southside with You as a stand-alone film.
For those looking for a glimpse of the Illinois Senator who burst into the global spotlight with a barnburner of a DNC keynote speech, the scene where Barack addresses a community meeting in a church may just set you ablaze. I could almost feel Sawyers reading the temperature of an already agitated room, a collection of concerned citizens whose bid for a community center had just been rejected by the city. Sawyers begins from a place of empathetic listening, rises into an invigorated plan that takes on the shape of his friends' anger, and hones it into a flaming arrow of compromise--a solution that codifies the group's power and aims it at smart targets, rather than all targets.
It's a stirring speech that made me question my own reluctance to support the President in his second bid for office. A later scene cemented this shame, as Barack and Michelle share drinks before hitting the movies. Barack tells Michelle that his father's life was incomplete, that he'd skipped out on every major opportunity (including a promising career and young family), becoming an anti-role model for what Barack wanted to do with his life. Barack would find ways to succeed, where his father looked for ways out--even if that meant setting aside ego and compromising a bit. On some level, Barack's confession is designed to give cover to his real-life future self whom, many have argued, campaigned on near-mythical systemic change, only to join the pantheon of predecessors who fell far short of nobility and effectiveness. In this sense, our future-knowledge adds poignancy to a theme that, without context, is more hopeful than sad.
Why am I so hung up on proving that Southside with You does (or doesn't) work as a context-free piece of art? Frankly, it's my in-laws. They're dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, and I've wondered since the middle of the movie if I might ever convince them to watch it. Sure, the pages of dialogue regarding corporate racism might be a turn-off (and a tip-off), but I want to believe that there's some way to convince half the potential audience for this film to give it a shot. Part of me needs to make the Klosterman future-society happen now, and to make Southside with You Exhibit A.
Just as Airplane! still works as a comedy today, regardless of whether or not successive audiences have ever seen the 1970s disaster movies it parodied, I believe Southside with You works as a film that could, in the mythology of its own enclosed cinematic universe, just be about two charming and likable people whose fate is left a mystery at the end. Barack and Michelle could never see each other after sharing a late-night ice cream; they could go on to be rivals at the law firm or in politics; hell, they might even become President and First Lady someday.
Out here, in the real world, we're mired in an unusually contentious political season, in which the Obama legacy is speculated upon, defended, and ripped to shreds, in some form or another, hundreds of thousands of times a day. Along comes a light date movie aimed at humanizing** a current President in the hopes of conferring some of that goodwill onto his party's nominee for successor.
Timing, as they say, is everything, and there's a part of me that wonders how much of Southside with You is merely propaganda, a lush and very moving advertisement for the Democratic Party's Little Guy spirit and progressive attitudes (Barack and Michelle's conversations about race in the corporate world, and Do the Right Thing's impact ring as true today as they did in 1989). Does the film's relaxed nature, charismatic cast, and easy-to-accept principles of justice make it's deceptively polemical thrust and too-perfect release date any less suspicious than Michael Moore's 2004 assault on the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 9/11 or Oliver Stone's W.?
I can't answer these questions. Southside with You's very DNA is an ouroboros of chicken-or-the-egg complexities that will have to be untangled by future minds more sophisticated than ours, or at least more detached from the momentary drama and incessant, pervasive media analysis of that drama. For these reasons alone, I can recommend Southside with You as one of the most fascinating and important films of the year. It's also really good.
*Confession: I've never seen those films, despite being a big fan of Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy. I'll get to them someday, when there's finally enough time to navigate the embarrassingly wide and intimidatingly deep sea of Movies I Should've Seen By Now.
**That is to say, bringing someone of near-mythical status down to levels relatable to us mere mortals.