‘Southside with You’ shatters basic romance mold

Writer and director Richard Tanne does the seemingly impossible in crafting a compelling love story and depicting race relations in Chicago.
Writer and director Richard Tanne does the seemingly impossible in crafting a compelling love story and depicting race relations in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Newsweek.

Southside with You, a film following a couple through Chicago on their first date in 1989, opened this weekend at Images Cinema. The movie gets an additional level of complexity from its main characters, Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama. However, Southside with You is much more than an expression of liberal America’s adoration of the Obamas. Rather than being dependent on Michelle and Barack’s well-known public personas to drive the story, Richard Tanne, the film’s writer and director, augments what we already know about Michelle and Barack with some genuinely convincing and thoughtful filmmaking. 

Southside with You opens as Michelle and Barack prepare at their respective homes for an upcoming community meeting. Barack wants this encounter to be a date, but Michelle does not. Unbeknownst to Michelle, Barack is picking her up several hours before the community meeting is scheduled to begin. When Michelle realizes this, she instantly objects to his plan, primarily because Barack is a summer associate at her law firm and she fears a relationship could  jeopardize her career. After Barack successfully persuades Michelle to join him – but not as a date – the film follows the couple as they visit The Art Institute of Chicago, walk through the city, attend a community meeting, visit a bar and go to a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. 

It is challenging to determine whether the real-world identity of the main characters helps or hurts the film’s storytelling ability. Regardless of the verdict, it is certainly a worthwhile question to grapple with as a viewer. The film neither relies on nor is completely independent from the identities of the main characters. Due to this uncertainty, the film benefits from character development that resists cliche.

The basic formula of a romance film often follows as such: introduce the audience to two people, make the audience view the pair positively and want the two characters to become a couple and finally indulge the audience’s wishes, letting the couple have “the big kiss” and live happily ever after. But, because of the audience’s familiarity with Michelle and Barack Obama, most of these steps have already been accomplished before the opening credits finish rolling. We already know the Obamas and most likely hold a strong opinion on them. There is no suspense as to whether or not they will end up together. Under the guidance of a less capable director, this dynamic might have been a recipe for boredom. Tanne instead uses what we already know about the characters as a mechanism to reach greater depths. 

Southside with You seems to be aware that its audience will already have an opinion on the Obamas and therefore does not waste time lingering on introductions to the characters. Instead, Tanne humanizes Barack and Michelle by quickly highlighting their more vulnerable and relatable characteristics. Barack smokes cigarettes and drives a car with a hole in the bottom of it. Michelle seems to struggle with the lack of meaning in her job and uncertainty in her career path. Early in the movie, Tanne allows the characters to sit in silence on the car ride, perfectly showing the awkwardness of a first date. Tanne knows his characters are unconventional and adjusts the way he develops them to make them more relatable. 

Though Tanne does a fine job in the way he presents Michelle and Barack, the strongest moments of Southside with You occur when the film engages with the environment around the characters. Tanne dedicates entire shots to a painting by Ernie Barnes at the Art Institute, showing a lively, energetic African-American family having a good time, their swaying movement emphasized by Barnes’ elongating their figures. The director has Barack and Michelle stop and dance along with traditional African music in the park, giving the audience a new and interesting lens through which to view them both as the on-screen couple and the real-life political figures. The city of Chicago acts as an important character in the movie. In multiple scenes, the film seems more interested in showing the viewer Michelle and Barack’s life as African-Americans rather than their relationship. In these moments, the movie excels at delivering a black perspective that is sorely missing in American cinema. Southside with You is a much stronger movie because of it. 

Maybe because the movie at times shows it is capable of reaching these magnificent heights, or perhaps because the audience already knows so much about the characters, parts of the film’s final act can feel at times underwhelming. Barack is given the opportunity to deliver a speech to his community center, and it feels slightly unnatural to the narrative. However, he did become President of the United States and one of the most skilled orators of his generation. Some parts of the story seem to fit better with real-life Barack and Michelle than with Southside with You Barack and Michelle. When they finally kiss, it feels as if the film is settling by lowering its standards to genre conventions. But ultimately, did Tanne  have any other choice? Southside with You is bound to the truth because its characters are real. It may be that any disappointment in the film’s sappiness is derived from the fact that an element of suspense has been drained because we viewers know so much about Barack and Michelle’s happily ever after. 

In Southside with You’s finest moments, one cannot help but be reminded of Richard Linklater’s masterpiece Before Sunrise, another movie that depicts a couple exploring a city. While Southside with You does not quite reach that same level of sustained brilliance, its imperfections are more than forgivable. The film brings race to the forefront of a romance movie in a  way that few others have. Any misgivings about sappiness must be accompanied with questions on how a romance movie about a well-known, real-life couple interacts with genre conventions. Furthermore, any opinions about the portrayal of Barack and Michelle lend themselves to political debate about the way we view politicians, specifically how Obama supporters and critics may view this movie differently. Or you can just sit back and enjoy a good old-fashioned love story. Regardless, Southside with You is worth a trip to Images Cinema, as you can engage with it on so many different levels.

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