Enter SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU, which is like if Medicine for Melancholy hooked up with Love Jones and made a baby. The film highlights the first date between President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama when they were both associates at the same corporate law firm back in 1989. Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is an associate with the firm, and Barack (Parker Sawyers) is a summer intern, so, being the classy lady that she is, she politely declined his romantic advances. That is, until he tricks her into going to a “community work event” that turned out to be an all-day date, which is when the film opens up. It’s the dead of summer in Chicago, nearly three years since the first episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired, three years after the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl, the same year Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” (which we hear at the top of the film) took the Billboard charts by storm, yet also the same year the city saw a dramatic increase of handgun homicides—many of the victims being young men of color. It’s a tumultuous era in which to set a black romance story, but writer/director Richard Tanne, who meticulously detailed facts right out of the Obamas’ own account—proving that despite turmoil, black people still found space in their hearts for love.
Like the conversation during my own date, which initially rested in a sweet spot of #BlackLivesMatter and generic get-to-know-you rhetoric like “What do you like to do for fun?”, the dialogue between Michelle and Barack gradually led to reflections on the alarming rate of black homicide in the area, being the only person of color (and, for Michelle, the only woman of color) in the workplace, and the dichotomy of feeling overwhelmed yet ambitious when it comes to solving problems in the black community.
In SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU, we’re not watching the president and first lady. We’re watching their younger, slightly more hopeful counterparts meeting each other for the first time and confronting injustices through conversation and reciprocated acknowledgment. It’s the ultimate turn-on for blerds: the educated young man and rising lawyer doesn’t woo the woman with roses and a candlelight dinner. He takes her to a forum of frustrated community members of which he concludes with a powerful speech that encourages his audience to reframe their perspectives in order to launch a constructive plan to get their needs met. Swoooon, amirite? #SocialJusticeNerdsUnite
The comfortable realization of meeting their counterpoint is best represented in two scenes in the film: when Barack and Michelle are chatting over drinks and she pointedly asks him a question that’s been on her mind ever since she got word that Barack had dated a number of white women before her. “Which do you prefer—dating black women or dating white women?” (Sumpter perfectly dons Michelle’s natural straightforwardness). He takes a long pause before he answers (Sawyers, being sure to capture Barack’s signature respite), telling her about his previous long-term girlfriend, who was white, “I was tired of feeling like an outsider.” At this moment, it’s not just about finding another black person with whom he can commiserate; it’s about discovering the person he is and the person he wants to become. It’s also about the affirmation he feels knowing that the person with whom he wants to take this journey is sitting in front of him.
Another moment presents a disagreement between Barack and Michelle when he presumes that she is not happy with being silent at her job as injustices she is passionate continue to elude her white superiors. Michelle, ever the dogmatic one, is a corporate soldier, but Barack hits a nerve when he suggests she’s more “woke” than she’s letting on. It’s when Michelle also realizes that Barack could be the one to complement her weaknesses and eliminate insecurities that until then she’s kept buried.
In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is a smart way to usher in a new wave of black romantic films that are as meaningful as they are tender. Sumpter and Sawyers have beautifully captured all the smallest details about the larger than life, real-life characters they portray. And Tanne, with his feature directorial debut, eloquently recreates the time period and the setting, which serves as its own character in this constantly relevant narrative.
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is in theaters Friday.