Thursday, September 1, 2016

Southside With You

                                                    And Then He Kissed Me

                                                             Review by Ken Burke
 As I noted in our last posting (a review of Florence Foster Jenkins [Stephen Frears], as with Southside With You yet another current cinematic mainstream/arthouse story based on real events [as have been 19—admittedly, 3 of them documentaries—of the 64 films I’ve reviewed so far this calendar year, but there’ve also been a good number of others that I haven’t seen]), my goal this week was to not write so extensively as I did for my lengthy reviews of Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) and Ben-Hur (Timur Bekmambetov), as well as present a couple of separate reviews for a change rather than just 1 enormous one (at times I need a little variety in this process just to keep from getting blasé about it) so I offer another somewhat-shorty-text for your reading pleasure.

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                      Southside With You (Richard Tanne)
In 1989, Harvard Law School student Barack Obama works as a summer associate in a big Chicago law firm where his 2nd-year-associate mentor, Michelle Robinson, agrees to go with him to a community meeting which he considers to be a date although she adamantly disagrees; in the process of their day, they clash over various things but ultimately grow closer.
What Happens: 
In 1989, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), a young student from Harvard Law School, serves as a summer associate (essentially, 
an intern as best as I think I understand this profession) at Chicago’s prestigious Sidney Austin firm, allowing him to return to a beloved city where he’d previously worked as a community organizer before moving East for graduate work; at the firm he’s under the supervision of Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), a 2nd-year-associate (graduate of Harvard Law herself but still under intense scrutiny from her older, more-experienced, White male colleagues so that she feels she’s constantly walking on eggshells to gain their approval).  Under the guise one weekend of asking her to accompany him to a community meeting in his old neighborhood, Barack shows up to get her (late as usual) in his banged-up old yellow car (with a gaping hole in the front floorboard), spraying breath freshener on himself and the vehicle to hide the smell of his constant cigarettes, often saying they’re on a date, a term she constantly denies noting forcefully not only how inappropriate that would be given their work status but also how it would demean her in the eyes of her superiors if she just swooned for a cute Black guy strolling into their offices.  However, his “date” strategy becomes clear (there’s a great shot where they stand before a storefront with a “For Rent” sign arrow pointing right at him) as the meeting doesn’t start for a few hours so that they have time to visit the “Afrocentric” exhibit at the city’s grand Art Institute (featuring the work of Ernie Barnes, who actually made the paintings supposedly done by J.J. Evans [Jimmy Walker] on the TV show “Good Times,” a ticket for this talented kid to finally get out of the ghetto) and have lunch (where she declines his offer of pie, preferring ice cream—he worked at Baskin-Robbins as a kid, forever dulling his appetite for any more of that stuff) before they finally get to the meeting.

There, she’s at first put off by the fawning older women who insist on referring to her as being Barack's girlfriend (noting that he’s finally showing up with a Black woman; he explains to her later that he did have White girlfriends, but even as a biracial man having grown up in Indonesia and Hawaii with a White mother he just couldn’t find himself comfortable trying to fit into an all-White family), but after that she’s impressed as he uses his smooth oratorical skills to turn the mood in this church-full of angry attendees (the City Council’s denied their request to build a community center, which they hoped would be an answer to safe activities for their kids, trying to protect them from neighborhood gang violence) into a positive switch from “no” to “on,” as in moving on to finding strategies to shift perception from “self-interest” into city-wide “mutual interests.”  Despite her increasing respect for his intentions (and recognition of his strategy to get her to a place where there'd be a lot of people showing him great respect), she’s also criticized him for continuing to harbor unmitigated anger toward his African father who not only wasn’t much of a part of Barack’s life but also ruined his own with alcoholism which got Dad kicked out of Harvard as well as leading to his death at age 46 in a car crash back in Kenya.  But even though she’s told him to “let go of judgment,” he’s likewise sounded off on her for voicing support for social justice while trying to become accepted in a swanky law firm with duties and a culture she can barely tolerate.  They make peace, though, even to the point of her accepting into the early evening that they’re now on a date, going to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, only to be shocked by the sudden appearance of her law firm’s boss, Avery Goodman (Tom McElory), and his wife (also at the screening, trying to understand what the controversy’s about), with her attempts to explain Barack’s presence barely being accepted by the older man.  

 To ease the discomfort a bit, Obama interprets to Avery that in the film they all just saw Mookie (Lee) smashes the pizzeria’s picture window (covered by insurance) to start a general melee rather than allow the angry crowd to kill Sal (Danny Aiello) in retaliation for the violent over-response by police to Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), resulting in his sudden death (although Barack tells Michelle later it’s really because Mookie was furious but he was giving their boss an explanation he could accept).  As he takes her home she’s now despondent because she fears her career momentum is dead, but when he stops to buy her some ice cream she melts sooner than the dessert with them finally kissing just before the last parallel scenes of each back in their respective homes, happily contemplating their future (maybe him also contemplating when he’s ever going to wash his dishes).

So What? As I’ve learned from various accounts (including this one and another) about Southside With You, screenwriter-director Tanne did commendable, meticulous research about his subject matter (but no direct contact with either one of the Obamas, although a lot of people are curious to know what they think about this somewhat-unauthorized—although not-at-all-objected-to—account of their long-lasting-romance’s well-negotiated-beginning), with confirmations that on that initial-casual-day-together they did attend the art exhibit, see Do the Right Thing, and end the night with their 1st kiss at a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream-parlor.  However, there seems to be no certainty at this point (until one of them sets the record straight) if the community meeting they attended was on that fateful July afternoon or whether they went at another time even though it’s been added to this storyline as a way to show Michelle’s increasing admiration for her suitor in a more concise manner.  The problem (if you even see it as that) with this community-meeting-chronological-relocation is that if it occurred on some other date (so to speak), then the whole narrative tension—of Michelle initially rejecting Barack’s advances as he’s using the meeting as a ploy to spend out-of-office-time with her, then coming around to his interests in her as respect for his inner-character grows over these initial hours together—is negated because without the community-meeting-element all of the other things they did together that day would certainly seem to constitute what single people call a "date," given that there’d be no business-connected-context, just 2 young adults sharing mutual interests as they get to know each other better (hard to define that as anything but a date, given that romantic sparks aren’t assured outcomes of such calculated-time-investments, as I can testify from a number of 1-night-neutral-encounters, as opposed to other 1st dates that led to longer-term-connections).

 So, am I dismissing the warm romance shown in this film that’s led to an almost-24-year-marriage, 2 loving children, and a successful-shared-navigation of their lives even into the spotlight of the White House?  No, but I’m saying from a cinematic-dramatic-tension-standpoint that if the community meeting wasn’t on their actual agenda that day then how we’re presented with Michelle finding valid reason to become as attracted to this man as he obviously is to her falls a bit flat, as does the full scenario of the chance meeting with their boss and his wife after the movie screening, in which she’s now convinced that either her career will be permanently stalled for being perceived as dating this office guy (under her supervision, no less) or, even if she is heating up toward Barack, they’ll have to forget romance if she ever has hopes of rising within the firm, yet this moment of distance between the daters (a term she still seems to want to deny, at least from her perspective), along with the ensuing silence between them as he drives her home, is suddenly swept away by his thoughtful stop to buy her a chocolate ice cream cone.  It’s an honest gesture that she finally accepts for his good intentions (even if he faced the possibility of being slapped by responding to her question of “Do you want some?” by saying “Yes” then kissing her instead of nibbling on the ice cream), but if a surprise offer of her favorite sweet is all it takes to subdue the worst-day-of-my-life-attitude that she shows after the accidental run-in with their not-convinced-this-is-some-sort-of-a-business-arrangement-boss, then Baskin-Robbins should expect their profit margin to expand by at least 1,000% as befuddled men everywhere have now finally found a solution to their partners’ occasional bouts of malaise.  

 In other words, take the community-meeting-excuse out of this day’s agenda and the whole structure of conflict-resolution becomes just a real date that catches fire; there’s nothing wrong with that (it worked for me almost 30 years ago; the flame's intact), but it’s not quite the amazing change of history that’s being so respectfully depicted here.  The romance is still real, but the motivations don’t span the intended dramatic arc without the initial denials plus the community-meeting-ploy.

Bottom Line Final Comments: While I don’t attempt to include political or ideological commentary in every review (except where the content calls loudly for it, in both documentary—Where To Invade Next [Michael Moore; review in our February 18, 2016 posting] and fictional dramatic narrative—Hell or High Water [review in our August 26, 2016 posting]formats, or when an issue’s trending too highly not to note it, as you’ll see just below), anyone who’s read my comments on a regular basis 
(all half-dozen of you that I get replies from, although the worldwide-unique-hits-total is still above 18,000 per month but down from my recent-all-time-high of almost 23,000 [France rather than Russia now in the weekly lead but always with respectable numbers from the U.S., where I still stand up during the National Anthem at baseball games—but only in the ballpark, not when I'm watching at home; of course, they never televise that part of the game, do they? Interesting fact, within the context of all this heated-hubbub over San Francisco 49’ers 
now-very-unlikely-starting-quarterback Colin Kaepernick's controversial “stance”—or lack thereof—at his own games.]) would know of my left-wing (let’s say democratic socialist) feelings, so it should come as no big surprise that I’d be inclined to have a positive response to a movie that takes a sympathetic view of the Obamas.  (Just as I was a supporter of W. [Oliver Stone, 2008], which presented an unflattering view of Republican President George W. Bush [played by Josh Brolin, with Elizabeth Banks as First Lady Laura] from his marginally-productive-college-days to his since-condemned-unproductive-war on Iraq—although Roger Ebert and I both liked it better than the critical world as a whole, with 59% positive ratings at Rotten Tomatoes, 56% at Metacritic.)  

 However, as far as critical consensus for Southside With You goes I’m way behind the curve where you’ll find RT reviews at a huge 92%, the MC average lower at 74% but that’s still higher than my 3 of 5 stars (60%, although I rarely go above 4 stars so you have to factor that in).  Yet, I’m quibbling over cinematic story structure, not visceral impact, where Sawyers and Sumpter don’t attempt imitations of the future First Couple (although he does come close at times in general appearance, mannerisms, and some speech patterns; she’s not so much a parallel with looks but does nail the real Michelle’s certainty, convictions, and presence), with a story that could sway most anyone, except the most ardent, rock-hard Obama haters (now turning their attention to Hilary Clinton).

 In this sweet, watchable-throughout-movie, I could believe in the romantic attraction between the soon-to-be-lovers even if these 2 people had their names and personal circumstances changed but maintained similar personalities that would bring such characters together, just as I was willing to accept the plausibility of these depictions while watching them with the added layer of subject-knowledge that this couple has now entered U.S. political history, with her being widely-respected (to the ironic point of her 2008 Democratic Convention speech finding its way into Melania Trump’s remarks at the recent Republican national gathering, even if such “borrowing” is based only on her stated-admiration for what the current First Lady originally said) and him finishing out his Presidency enjoying high-and-rising-approval-ratings in national polls.  These are admirable, photogenic people whose genuine desires to help others in their struggle for success and equality are a pleasure to see portrayed on screen, even in the developmental stages where their flaws are also easily shown.  (He’s constantly pulling out another cigarette, has furious issues toward his deceased father, can’t seem to manage time [I’m guilty as charged on that also], admits he smoked a lot of pot in his even-younger-days [just as G.W. is shown as a recovering alcoholic in his aforementioned film]; she professes a desire to help the left-behinds in her hometown of Chicago but, as he points out, chooses to stake a career on succeeding in a huge upper-class, White-run law firm where she constantly feels like she has to prove herself to her bosses, despite her superior Princeton/Harvard Law School education.)

 However, if these 2 folks weren’t the famous pair of Barack and Michelle, but an just ordinary young twosome (maybe named Barry [Barack’s nickname as a youth] and Mary Lou) spending a weekend day on an art exhibit/movie/ice cream-date ending with a kiss (and dreamy thoughts about what might come next) I’d just consider this movie to be a nice, warm rendition of how a meant-for-each-other-couple were able to overcome their work constraints in order to find personal happiness, pleasant to watch but not quite of the same impact of Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995), a film to which this current movie has found a frequent comparison but which also has the luxury of completely fictional characters, dialogue to serve the storyline more than to ring true to historical circumstances, as well as mystery as to where that potential relationship might end up (although that ... Sunrise question’s been resolved as well by the director’s long-delayed-sequels, Before Sunset [2004] and Before Midnight [2013; review in our June 5, 2013 posting]).  Overall, Southside With You (which brings our future First Family back
to their Southside Chicago roots after their East Coast educations [his undergrad degree was at Columbia], with her actually born in this deprived, sprawling neighborhood, then him coming there years later for community organizing work in 1985-’88, after his undergrad time in NYC) is as comforting as an ice-cream-cone, as honest as it can be when written by someone who knows his subjects only through published research rather than direct interviews, and respectful of the now-powerful-people it sets out to present without making either of them into saints; still, it hits me as being just merely pleasant, not really all that memorable, although the perfect Musical Metaphor for its message would be the Stephen James Taylor song, “Can’t Stop What I’m Feelin,’” used under the closing credits (with lines appropriate to a blossoming romance like “I don’t know where this road leads” [I wish I could cite more, but that’s all I remember and I can’t find any Internet link for this song’s lyrics]) but apparently it’s not to be found unless you consider buying the soundtrack (before you do that, though, you just might want to go here to sample all but 2 of those tunes, “Can’t Stop …” being 1 of the unavailables, of course).

 With that Metaphor's odd limitations in place, I guess I’ll have to retreat to the simpler thoughts of this posting’s title, where I'll steer you instead to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (written by the team of Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Barry, produced as usual by Spector in his own powerfully-bombastic-style; maybe available on other albums but you can definitely on the 1992 The Best of the Crystals) at com/watch?v=r17KaC7 C5D4 (accompanied by some processed video from one of their live performances but with the original footage seemingly as part of the visual support for this video of the song), which probably better fits my appreciation-but-not-swooning-embrace of Southside With You, with this tune's insistent-presence maybe more likely for me as the chosen Metaphor than the subtle passion you’ll hear in Taylor’s song (if you can find it anywhere because it’s not even listed with the tracks on the soundtrack disc for sale at Amazon; maybe you’ll just have to seek out one of the 813 theaters the movie’s currently playing in to listen to it there—I’m sure the producers wouldn’t mind that, either, as it’s made only $2.9 million domestically in its 1st week of release, so any help you can give them would surely be appreciated).  As a final encouragement to less-than-enthusiastic-Obama-folks-as-potential-theater-attendees, there’s minimal reference in this movie to contemporary issues (but some; on religion he says “I’m still evolving”; evoking President Bill Clinton at the church meeting he tells the crowd “I feel your pain”; the choking death of Raheem shown in the Do the Right Thing clip clearly sits parallel to the events that’ve sparked the Black Lives Matter movement), but even that might be too much for you so get a firm grip on your ideological-constraints before you consider buying a ticket.  If you do, though, I think you’ll find the movie to be time reasonably-well-spent, especially in comparing its content to the ongoing Presidential-campaign-clash between Trump and Clinton in their battle until this coming November.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about Southside with You: (if you don’t want to spend money on seeing this movie just watch this trailer which shows you all of the pertinent parts, then read my spoiler-filled-review again; however, if you'd like to show the Prez some love then shell out your money for a ticket [like I did] as part of his retirement acknowledgements) (34:30 interview [after beginning with the same trailer as the link just above] with writer-director Richard Tanne and actors Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers; audio’s a bit low, though, so listen carefully)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. 

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