Directed by: Vikram Gandhi.
Written by: Adam Mansbach.
Starring: Devon Terrell (Barack Obama), Anya Taylor-Joy (Charlotte), Jason Mitchell (PJ), Ellar Coltrane (Will), Ashley Judd (Ann Dunham), Avi Nash (Saleem), Jenna Elfman (Kathy Baughman), Linus Roache (Bill Baughman).
Southside with You
Directed by: Richard Tanne.
Written by: Richard Tanne.
Starring: Parker Sawyers (Barack Obama), Tika Sumpter (Michelle Robinson), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Marian Robinson), Phillip Edward Van Lear (Fraser C. Robinson).
We are in the final month of Barack Obama’s Presidency before Donald Trump comes in and attempts to undo everything that Obama has done in the last eight years. If you want to enjoy this last month and not think about the future to come, you could do worse things than put on a double bill of Vikram Ganhdi’s Barry – which just debuted on Netflix, and is about a couple years in Obama’s life in New York as a University student in the early 1980s – and Richard Tanne’s Southside With You – a indie hit at the box office this summer, newly arrived on VOD platforms – which is about Barack and Michelle’s first date in Chicago in 1989. Both films are at times heavy handed – leaning too much on the President Obama was going to become, and occasionally the actors playing him (and in the latter film, Michelle as well), work too hard to do an impression of him. Yet both films show an idealistic young man, struggling with his identity – and the man he wants to become. To me, Barry is clearly the superior film – it has a larger scope, and allows Obama to be a more fully rounded character (and sometimes, an asshole), whereas Southside With You leans harder on the great man stuff. But as a double bill, the films are fascinating.
The Obama is Barry is more often than not, quiet. The film shows him reading and thinking a lot – lost in thought (usually smoking). He is grappling with things that he doesn’t verbalize very much during the course of the movie – there’s only one real scene set in a classroom in Barry, where he and other students debate politics – which ends on a great note, when one of the white students asks Barry why everything always comes back to slavery – something Barry doesn’t dignify with a response (we’ll return to that other character again in the film, and again, Barry doesn’t really respond). The film is, in many ways, about Obama walking a kind of strange line – he barely knows his father – he carries around a letter from him, and spends most of the movie trying to write a response (which he is, ultimately, too late to send). He loves his mother – Ashley Judd, wonderful in just one sequence – but is also exhausted by her. He starts to date Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy, from The Witch) – who is white, and who introduces him to her liberal, do-gooder parents (Linus Roache and Jenna Elfman), who try very hard to not make it seem that they are trying very hard with him. Their relationship will, of course, run its course eventually – but the fault for that mainly lies with Barry, who isn’t ever able to really explain to her his feelings, or why it’s awkward for him and her to be together. There are other minor characters, who are basically present to show Barry with different groups – his white roommate (Ellar Coltrane, from Boyhood), who seems cool with Barry, but maybe not some of his other friends, Saleem (Avis Nash), a drug taking Indian who indulges Barry’s wilder side, and PJ (Jason Mitchell, from Straight Outta Compton), as a kid from the projects working to get his Ivy League education to get out of them – who, in the film’s most memorable sequence, takes Barry to those projects to show the guy who spent most of his life in Hawaii or Indonesia how many black people live. Barry undeniably leans too heavily on the man Obama will become for its impact – if you didn’t know this man, you may well wonder why they’re making a movie about him – and there are some awkward moments (the wedding conversation Barry has with an inter-racial couple for instance) – but mainly film works – mainly because newcomer Devon Terrell is so good as Obama.
Southside with Me is the better known film – unlike Barry, which debuted at TIFF this September, and then bought by Netflix, it actually did receive a theatrical release, and did well for an indie of its size. It’s also the more highly praise of the two films, which is odd to me, because while I admired parts of the film, I more often than not found it awkward – and that the two stars tried too hard to mimic their famous characters. Richard Tanne’s films is about a long summer day turning into night in Chicago in 1989 – when Barack Obama – then a summer intern at a high profile Chicago law firm, asked out a second year associate, Michelle Robinson, for what he thinks is a date, and she is adamant is not one. Over the course of the day, the two talk, and flirt – she silently judges him for all the cigarettes (the one thing the two movies share is the Obama smokes a lot in both) – as the pair go to an art gallery, drive around, go to a community meeting, and end the evening at a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
The film is at its best when it is most relaxed – the pair talking about the art they see in the gallery for instance, or discussing Do the Right Thing. It goes off the rails for me a few times when it tries to strain for importable – most notably in an extended sequence where Obama gives a speech to a community group he is involved with – where we keep flashing to Michelle in the audience, and get the feeling that this is the moment she falls for him. In this way, the film resembles Barry – both films are about a central romantic relationship – yet one that the film really does fail to see in any sort of sexual way (I understand that for Barack and Michelle, it was a first date, and they didn’t have sex then – yet there is no real erotic charge between them anyway – it’s all intellectual).
Southside with You clearly wants to be an Obama version of Before Sunrise – the Richard Linklater movie, where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy fall in love, over the course of one long night spent talking. The difference is, that relationship felt natural – here is feels forced and strained as often as it feels natural.
Still, what both films do is show the man who would become President at various, specific moments in his life – which allows you to see the way he’d change, and the way he’d stay the same. America is about to go through who knows what under President Trump – I think they’ll miss the calm leadership of Obama, but what do I know. What these two movies – imperfect as they are – serve to do is remind you that Obama is a person as well, and what kind of person he is.