Review by Wanda Sabir
In “Southside with You” (2016), which opens nationally Aug. 26, 2016, Richard Tanne makes his feature film directorial debut. “Southside” is the story of youthful love, first love for Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, 25, a sheltered Chi-town daughter who is working hard – pressing against glass ceilings from a philosophical basement at a prestigious law firm, as she supervises the charming, cute intern, 27-year-old Barack Obama.
The film opens with both protagonists getting ready for their “date.” Barack is seated in his easy chair talking to his grandmother, while Michelle is choosing jewelry, combing her hair, putting lotion on her feet and ankles, then tucking an orange silk blouse into the waist of a cream pencil skirt before slipping on high heel pumps and walking into the front room of the house to greet her parents, who both quiz her about her date.
Michelle doesn’t date interns, or so she tells her parents, Marion and Fraser C. Robinson (actors Vanessa Bell Calloway and Phillip Edward Van Lear), who smile as they watch their daughter dress for the “non-date.” She tells them his name which in itself is a conversation starter. While across town, we hear Barack’s grandmother quizzing him on Michelle and, liking what she hears, she tells Barack to hurry so he won’t be late.
He is, late, that is, something Michelle notices.
The day starts early and Barack has a lot planned; however, Michelle tells him immediately that she has worked too hard to give the lead attorneys at Sidley and Austin reason to question her values or judgment. Barack agrees to her terms, happy that she doesn’t ask him to take her home. Actress Tika Sumpter’s Michelle is intellectually sharp and witty as she and a charming, chain smoking Barack (actor Parker Sawyers) dance around each other as Michelle’s attraction to an already interested Barack becomes undeniable and she rethinks her rules and compromises as the day progresses.
Michelle visibly relaxes, opens up and begins to let herself enjoy Barack’s company. Sawyers’s character wants Michelle Robinson to see him. Obviously the future First Lady likes the introductory package and wrapper. “Southside with You” is a great primer for first dates. President Barack Obama’s initial preparations for this fictionalized version of the actual first date lead the couple (two years later) to matrimony, two daughters, the Senate and two terms in the White House.
“Southside” is the story of youthful love, first love for Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, 25, a sheltered Chi-town daughter who is working hard – pressing against glass ceilings from a philosophical basement at a prestigious law firm, as she supervises the charming, cute intern, 27-year-old Barack Obama.
Sawyers’s Barack didn’t know what to expect and, at day’s end after he drops off Michelle and both sit and reflect, we see smiles on both their faces. What the brash Barack almost stumbles into amazes him, as much as it will amaze audiences who did not know as much as we learn on the screen about the eventual First Lady. He literally has no clue, no inclination into the depth hidden beneath Michelle’s professional demeanor. As Michelle, Sumpter’s reading of Barack is in contrast, on target whenever she calls him out. She shows up fully armed, pistols strapped on both hips. Though she doesn’t fire blanks, Michelle is a merciful markswoman.
Posed and in control, Tika Sumpter’s Michelle LaVaughn Robinson has definite ideas about what she wants and how she plans to play her hand. It takes a while for Barack to win her confidence, but he does with little things like remembering she likes chocolate ice cream, knowing when to be silent and to listen to what is unspoken and what is voiced.
Funny and spontaneous, Sawyers’s Barack upsets Michelle’s wagon. As she runs to gather the scattering apples each one rolling a bit faster the moment she gets close, Michelle wonders aloud if her intellectual investment in the task is worth the trouble. Let them all rot! Why not try another orchard where the farmers allow her input into the season before harvest?
Both characters grow and change in these capable actors’ hands. “Southside with You” is definitely an ensemble piece, yet as much as we love no nonsense Michelle, it is Parker Sawyers’s charming Barack who carries the show – from the actor’s uncannily familiar Obama mannerisms and diction to his striking visage, his Barack is, well, our Executive in Chief (smile) – the actor’s aesthetic preparation and training evident in this role. Additionally, his background as a lobbyist gives him a natural inclination and knack for the Barack character and role as well.
Sawyers’s Barack keeps the audience riveted to the screen as his unsolicited observations produce unfavorable results in his date whom he is trying to impress (smile). Barack then retreats and regroups, Sawyers’s character persisting as he changes minutely and profoundly as a result of his relationship with Tika Sumpter’s Michelle. He wants the girl. Will he get her? We all know the answer to this. Nonetheless, it’s fun watching Barack sweat.
Barack apologizes to Michelle publically and even admits to a propensity to prejudge another when he is invited to address his friends at the community meeting he and Michelle attend. Young Barack’s speech is so politically astute – we have a glimpse at the future. One has to marvel at Richard Tanne’s writing and direction here. It is one of multiple freeze frame moments in the film; another is when Michelle shares a personal, not-to-be-repeated story with Barack.
Both characters grow and change in these capable actors’ hands. “Southside with You” is definitely an ensemble piece.
When Michelle and Barack walk through an alley memorialized with names of black boys killed – once again revelatory – the despair is palatable before we arrive at the church with a leaky roof, community members filling the pews. They assemble to discuss the City Council’s refusal to fund a much needed building for children to safely play. Here again, remarkable moments in this amazing film.
Those lists and lists of names lie silently all but forgotten; however, the fallen live in the hearts and minds of those assembled. Barack tells his friends who welcome him back from Harvard, that he has not forgotten them. This community reflects important formative relationships Barack established pre-Harvard Law School. Similarly, this date with Michelle is another such moment in a youthful life where nothing is taken for granted.
In “Southside with You,” two young people with so much integrity get to know one another. Sumpter’s Michelle listens then calls Barack out on his anger with his Kenyan father; she suggests he forgive him, as she tells him another story about a father-son relationship which starts one way then changes – not because it was easy, rather because it was necessary. In this story about Michelle’s paternal grandfather and his son, her father, we learn why education is so important to the Robinson family.
At a preview screening at Jack London Cinema, the lead actors share the details of the road from idea to film, shot in 17 days in Chicago’s Southside neighborhood not far from the First Lady’s childhood home. Other scenes are filmed on the West Side, downtown, and on the Amstutz Expressway in Waukegan – Southside’s cinematic re-creation impressive considering architectural changes over the 26 years since Michelle and Barack shared their first kiss. With an estimated budget of $1,500,000, this film had major support from the beginning. John Legend is one of the executive producers, with Tika Sumpter, Richard Tanne and Robert Teitel.
Barack is charming and persistent. He wants to get to know his supervising attorney. She does not date interns. As a Black woman in a predominately white firm, she feels she would be respected even less, so she tells him no. But one sunny day, he convinces her to join him at a community meeting and she says yes.
That yes – as Oakland poet Reginald Lockett writes and syndicated writer Shonda Rhimes’s echoes in her “Year of Yes” – is the start of everything. We can see that despite her qualms about dating someone from the office, specifically an intern she supervises, Michelle is smitten as is Barack, who opens, then closes the Toni Morrison novel he was about to read. The film ends with the two of them smiling as they reflect on their day together. Barack had planned the day; however, even he could have not anticipated the imperceptible chemical reactions as he sat across from Michelle discussing music choices over a beer, swapping favorite TV show lore at an African art show or walking through the City of Bones in route to a community meeting at Altgeld Gardens Homes, one of the oldest housing projects in Chicago (1944-45) and one of the first built in the United States.
Michelle and Barack’s day together gives audiences a sense of this city of stark oppositions – very poor and more affluent residents, who don’t have to see each other as long as everything is in its place. This theme is reinforced by Ernie Barnes’s art at the gallery and Spike Lee’s film, “Do the Right Thing.” There was not much difference between the Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and Chicago’s Southside.
At a preview screening at Jack London Cinema, the lead actors share the details of the road from idea to film, shot in 17 days in Chicago’s Southside neighborhood not far from the First Lady’s childhood home.
Barnes’s work takes Black life as its theme – his elongated figures animated and alive on the canvas. The late Samuel Fredericks, owner of Samuel’s Gallery on Oak Street in Oakland, hosted a retrospective of Barnes’s work. The artist was in attendance signing copies of his autobiography, “From Pads to Palettes” (1995). Barnes spoke about his desire to be a fine artist, and the difficulty in doing so when all the fine artists in museums were white. When he stated to his teacher that he would exhibit at a museum the class was visiting one day, she laughed and said Black people don’t paint.
Although he had the soul of an artist and never stopping drawing and painting, Barnes attended college on a football scholarship. He became a professional athlete (1959-1965) until an injury forced his retirement and his work as official artist for the NFL in 1965 began. When Barack and Michelle stop in front of a painting where men are playing pool, Barack recites Chicago Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic work: “We Real Cool: The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.”
Sawyers’s Barack shares stories of Barnes, the celebrated artist, and his work. As he and Michelle walk through the gallery – he mentions JJ from the sitcom “Good Times” and JJ’s metamorphosis when he discovers he can paint. Actor Jimmy Walker’s “James JJ Evans” could have stepped from the artist’s canvas, slender and of wiry build, enthusiastic and in perpetual motion. From opening credits, which feature Barnes’s “The Sugar Shack” (1970s) to most of the artwork in the series JJ paints, the work also shares Barnes signature.
Barnes’ canvas highlights the vibrancy and rich cultural tapestry that is Black people in all their glory – something Michelle and Barack appreciate, something “Southside with You” celebrates. Barnes’s exhibition, “The Beauty of the Ghetto,” an exhibition of 35 paintings that toured major American cities from 1972-1979 was his [illustrated] response to the 1960s ‘Black is beautiful’ cultural movement and James Brown’s 1968 ‘Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.’
Of this exhibition, Barnes said, “I am providing a pictorial background for an understanding into the aesthetics of Black America. It is not a plea to people to continue to live there (in the ghetto) but for those who feel trapped, it is … a challenge of how beautiful life can be.” (See http://www.erniebarnes.com/biography.html.)
What the director does with Barnes’s art, the African drummers in the park, the little girl dancing and Michelle joining her, opens the story to the community which supports the development of a Michelle and adopted son, Barack. The fenced lawns, children playing in the yards in one Black community, the absence of children’s voices in others – the picturesque and the horrific realities as we watch Radio Rahim (Bill Nunn) choked to death by police in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989), affirms the possibility of love even when life isn’t perfect.
This first date between Michelle and Barack is at a time when America is at crossroads – Spike Lee’s film at its center: “Do the Right Thing.” However, America has not done the right thing. This structural inequity is echoed at the community meeting the couple attend, it is echoed now at the end of President Obama’s second term. To place this film at the center of the discussion is politically strategic and savvy.
1989 is a volatile year: U.S. planes shoot down two Libyan fighters over international waters in the Mediterranean (Jan. 4). Emperor Hirohito of Japan dead at 87 (Jan. 7). George Herbert Walker Bush inaugurated as 41st U.S. president (Jan. 20). Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini declares author Salman Rushdie’s book, “The Satanic Verses,” offensive and sentences him to death (Feb. 14). Ruptured tanker Exxon Valdez sends 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound (March 24). Tens of thousands of Chinese students take over Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in rally for democracy (April 19 et seq.). U.S. jury convicts Oliver North in Iran-Contra affair (May 4). More than 1 million in Beijing demonstrate for democracy and chaos spreads across the nation (mid-May et seq.). Mikhail S. Gorbachev named Soviet president (May 25). Thousands killed in Tiananmen Square as Chinese leaders take hard line toward demonstrators (June 4 et seq.).
Yet, despite all this and what is to come circa 1989, history is working its magic in “Southside with You.”
Within a microcosm that is Chicago’s Black community, Michelle Robinson’s family is not an anomaly, but also not typical. Inside the humble bungalow where she and her brother shared the living room, a curtain dividing the room into two sections, education was stressed and civic responsibility modeled. Her dad, Frazer C. Robinson (actor Phillip Edward Van Lear), whom we see in the film and learn about from Michelle, worked 27 years as a city pump operator never missing a day, even when he was diagnosed with MS. The short scene at home is enough to establish for the audience Michelle’s love for her parents and their support. Both Michelle and her older brother Craig excelled academically – Michelle followed in her brother’s footsteps and graduated from Princeton, cum laude (1985) with a degree in sociology; she then earned a law degree at Harvard Law School (1988). Both she and her brother skipped second grade and learned to read at four. Michelle attended Whitney Young High School, the first magnet school for gifted and talented children. She graduated in 1981 as class salutatorian.
“Southside with You” is a great story, made all the better because it actually happened. Would that all our days could be as sweet. Don’t miss the film, Aug. 26, when it opens nationwide.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.