Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Southside With You"

 3 / 5 

The most important question to ask about Southside With You, the only legitimate question, really, is whether it would be a good movie if its leading characters were Jane and John Doe, not Michelle and Barack Obama.

The answer is yes, mostly.  It's a sweet and romantic film, which owes more than a little of its existence to Richard Linklater's Before movies.  It pays careful attention to the rhythms of how two people who don't know each other meet and fall in love, why almost every meeting and date is forgotten except the one on which you meet the person you'll decide you want to spend your life with.

It begins on the afternoon of a hot Chicago summer day in 1989 and ends late that night, when Michelle Robinson agrees to meet the twenty-something law student who she mentors at the high-priced law firm where she works.  His name is Barack Obama, and she assures her mother and father that he is nice and smart and handsome and black.  Meanwhile, he assures his grandmother that Michelle is tall and smart and black.

As an opening, it's weak, and for a movie that's not even 90 minutes long, Southside With You spends too much time worrying that it will be seen as a biography and not as a fictional romantic fantasia on the lives of two people who came to influence (I think it's safe to say without hyperbole) the entire world.

But Southside With You presents them as people: He's a loquacious, magnetic, sly chain-smoker, she's something more of a cipher as the movie begins, and maybe even as it ends, though it's she who turns out to be the main character, not him.  She is dubious of him, and recoils at the suggestion that they are on a date, though he has carefully manipulated the afternoon to maximize the time he spends with her.

The movie shows us nothing at all of their lives outside of this afternoon, and virtually nothing of them apart from the time they spend with each other.  This could be why the movie is so reluctant to begin -- it is impossible, especially the way they are portrayed by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, to think of them as something other than who they will become.

But this is both the movie's strongest and weakest suit.  There are times it uses our knowledge as a storytelling crutch, and others when writer-director Richard Tanne appears to feel obligated to mention biographical facts that waste time and don't add anything to the story of these two people.  It doesn't want to be a biography, but it can't avoid the fact that it is, and it's in the bumpy first 20 minutes or so that its very nature is a liability.

Then there's a crucial scene of Barack talking to a group of neighbors about the troubles of their southside neighborhood and the impossible bureaucracy they face to try to get a community center built.  This is when Southside With You springs to life.  In a sharply written speech, beautifully delivered by Sawyers, Barack crystallizes the philosophy for which he'll become known: that nothing about government is easy or nice, that there are perspectives and beliefs other than your own, that the only answer to "no" is, he believes, to "carry on."

The speech is a wonderful moment, but it's also where the film pivots perfectly.  If Michelle was doubtful, he convinces her to think about him differently.  They begin to talk about their philosophies, their ambitions and even, in one other remarkably written and acted scene, her doubts about the choices she's made.

Both Sawyers and Sumpter achieve something special, evoking their well-known real-life counterparts (he bears a striking resemblance to the president) without turning them into caricatures.  The easiest recent comparisons are Josh Brolin as George W. Bush and either Frank Langella or Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon -- and Sawyers surpasses them.  His easy-going but intense and insistent Obama captures the intangible spark that made him irresistible to half of the country while irritating the rest.

Yet none of that matters, including Sumpter's less flashy but no less integral portrayal of Michelle, unless we care about the characters, and Southside With You manages to make us do that by remaining, at its core, a romance.  Its main characters barely know each other when the film opens but care deeply about each other just a few hours later, and the film makes that believable and charming.  You leave the film wanting to know what happens next -- even though, of course, you do.

Is there reason to doubt the film's sincerity, to wonder if it's some sort of political tool?  Maybe it is -- just as Oliver Stone's W. in 2008, Southside With You comes just as the president is leaving office, when we're beginning to think about his legacy.

The interesting thing about Southside With You is that if it's a political film, it assiduously avoids politics.  It takes a polarizing president and humanizes him, turns him into a minor hero, and I suppose, given where we are in the 21st century, having a president who anyone thinks is both heroic and admirable is worth acknowledging.

Southside With You is more concerned with Barack Obama's humanity -- in its story of how he came to win over a dubious, anxious and uncertain woman, it wins us over, too -- than it is about his politics.

The most politically charged statement Southside With You makes is the one it doesn't: Could anyone make a movie this endearing, this sweet, this romantic about Hillary Clinton?  Or, let's be honest, about Donald Trump?

Viewed Sept. 1, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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