“It’s pretty good. Want some?”
Southside with You
I wanted to see Southside with You when it was in the theater but it kinda got by me. I didn’t hear much about viewer responses to it. No one I know saw it. It kind of just quietly flew under my radar. So I just recently watched it on Netflix, quietly, one morning in bed.
First of all, this film is beautifully shot. My cinephile eye can’t help but notice that right away. If Richard Linklater, whose films I have loved, had made a film about the Obamas first date, it would pretty much look like this. I’ve never heard of Richard Tanne, the white guy who actually did direct the film, nor was I surprised to discover a white guy was behind the camera.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Southside with You has many great elements in place for an authentically romantic film. The performances are solid for the most part, (when they don’t fall into caricature in a few scenes) with the kind of vulnerability needed to be drawn into the believable nuances and challenges of a budding partnership, particularly between two Black people struggling with the complex and tangled roots of very different backgrounds, yet meeting in the same space of oppressive double consciousness where all Black people meet in this country.
Both actors, Parker Sawyer and Tika Sumpter are attractive but relatable and believable as the soon to be first Black family of The United States of America. They also have great chemistry. Music by Janet Jackson, Slick Rick and John Legend, scenes shot on location in the Chicago Southside community, a running theme of selected paintings by Ernie Barnes whose famous painting was shown the end of the credits on “Good Times’ as well as a thread of discussion about the fictional Chicago inner city family and many more, lend an authentic Black aesthetic to the film.
One scene in particular that I love is when Michelle and Barack come across a community African drum circle and a little girl comes up and takes Michelle’s hand inviting her to dance. Michelle, who up until now presents herself very conservatively, and has only accepted the terms of being out with Barack by calling it a business meeting, throws him her pocket book to him and gets down to African drums with no hesitation. As Barack watches her warmly and intently, it’s easy to see that his heart is opening to her.
Less comfortable scenes include Baracks speech at a Black community church where he gives what has now become a the well known, hope infused, not all white Americans (without ever using the word White) are racist, you can’t judge everyone, Americans are basically good at the core spiel to convince Black people that their struggles to build a community center have less to do with the fact that they are fighting against systemic racism and more to do with the fact they’re just looking at the situation in the wrong way.
Apparently all they needed to do flip the word no… to on…
The second scene to make my heart sink was when Michelle, upon leaving the theater where they had seen “Do the Right Thing” (my personal fave Spike Lee film) is waiting outside while Barack uses the facilities and runs into their boss at the legal firm and his wife. They have just seen the film as well and are having some typical white people feelings about it. This scene is awkward as fuck for so many reasons. Michelle who hates the idea of being social with a Jr. employee in her work place because she’s afraid it will disparage her credibility as legal aid with her boss scrambles to make up a lie about who she’s seen the film with. So then Barack comes out, white boss introduces Barack with great honors to his wife and asks Barack what he makes of the explosive conclusion of the film. Barack tells him that Mookie did it as a way to distract the angry mob from killing Sal. Barack says this like it’s the smartest, most clever shit to say and when white boss leaves, tells Michelle that he only said it to protect his white fragility, and I guess ultimately to protect their positions at the firm. Michelle is furious at being caught by white boss outside of the office with Barack and storms off, with an I told you so rant.
Because God forbid Michelle should care about a Black man who works in her office and her White boss should see it and allow it to negatively inform any decisions about her and her career. All I saw in this scene were the long term and not very dissimilar affects of chattel slavery where in we did not have the freedoms to choose our work our partners or the ability to stay with our families without the fear of shame, torture and death. It reminded me of the time a white guy I was seeing in college once told me that I was only interested a certain Black man because he was…Black. I didn’t check him on that at the time because I didn’t even want to believe I’d heard it.
But I never forgot.
I did enjoy watching what felt like genuine intimacy building between the actors playing Michelle and Barack. I enjoyed seeing them see one another’s imperfections and be drawn to one another for ways in which those imperfections made them beautiful. You could really see how Michelle sharpened and challenged Barack and how he challenged her as well as respected, admired and adored her.
Honestly, I’m a big sap and it’s just wonderful seeing Black people loving each other on the screen. The fact that it was about Michelle and Barack just made me more sentimental about watching.
Sentimental….but not blind.