SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU, US, 2016. Starring Ticka Sumpter, Parker Sawyers. Directed by Richard Tanne. 84 minutes. Rated M (Coarse Language)
A rather romantic title and the south side is that of the city of Chicago back in the summer of 1989. For those expecting something of a date movie, and some are promoting this film as such, it is a brief encounter between two pleasant characters, articulate characters. And some have been reminded of Richard Linklater’s romantic encounters, with a great deal of talking between the two characters, in his Before… Trilogy.
When we hear that the names of the characters are Michelle and Barack, there is no mistaking who they are. This is an opportunity to get to know the couple, the visualising of this outing which meant a great deal to them (and which commentators say is accurate enough about what happened, even to Barack buying Michelle a chocolate ice cream at the end of the film).
Ticka Sumpter and Parker Sawyers have put a great deal of effort into their characterising Michelle and Barack, Sawyers having a lot of Barack’s manner, look, into nations (and his heavy smoking at that period).
The action of the film takes place from the early afternoon until the evening, giving the couple quite an opportunity to talk, learn about each other’s history and family, talk about their work, their perspectives on social issues. Michelle insists to her mother and father and, frequently, to Barack that their outing is not a date, that he had invited her as a colleague at work to go to a meeting in a church about local social issues. By the end, especially with the ice cream, and a kiss, it has definitely been a date.
The first part of their outing is to an art gallery to see paintings by Edgar Barnes, quite arresting paintings of African-American subjects, vivid colours, distorted forms, but illuminating a variety of situations and characters. This gives the couple an opportunity to talk about race issues, about Michelle’s straightforward family with a strong work ethic, about Barack’s white mother and her living in Hawaii and Indonesia, his Kenyan father and his father’s failures at study and work and death in a car accident. Many audiences know this background but it is interesting to hear the couple describe it.
Then the film moves to a more preachy and rhetorical situation, Barack invited to speak in the church to a group that is disappointed in social progress but he is able to turn their moods into enthusiastic support, reminding them that “no” can be turned into “on”. And so, we hear Barack social concerns – although Michelle does tell him that he sounds a bit professorial.
They also decide to go to a movie and see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the stirring 1989 drama of race relationships in New York City, showing a finale with racial anger and a riot. The couple actually meet their boss and his wife, white, who have come to see the film, the very few white characters in the entire film.
The film leaves it to the audience and their experience of the Obamas, not giving any further information about them and their careers. The final credits give an opportunity for the filmmakers to show us in longer close-up some of the Edgar Barnes paintings. For audiences who want something more challenging and controversial, they will have to wait until Oliver Stone decides to make a film about the Obama years!
Umbrella Films Released November 10th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.