Friday, September 2, 2016

Southside with You: A Future President Finds Love

Southside with You is a low-key little movie about a first date that doesn’t exactly start out as a date.  I’ve seen it compared to Before Sunrise, the 1995 Richard Linklater flick in which characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet on a European train and—through a night of walking and talking in a foreign city—discover one another’s souls. But there are some big differences too. At the end of  Before Sunrise the lovers part, only to reunite decades later for two sequels. At the end of Southside with You, two colleagues at a Chicago law firm seem well on the road to getting married, and one of them will end up becoming the 44th president of the United States.

Yes, Southside with You chronicles the first purely social encounter of Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama. (He, a Harvard law student, is a summer intern at a big-name law firm, and she, officially his supervisor, is determined to keep their relationship all business.) Though their verbal give-and-take is the screenwriter’s invention, many of the details of their all-day outing, which includes a visit to an exhibit of African-American art and a screening of Spike Lee’s new and controversial Do The Right Thing, are apparently true. And some of the deep emotions they gradually reveal—involving her feelings about her career and his complex attitude toward his parents—can be found in news reports and in Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Midway through the film there’s a key scene in which they attend a meeting called by everyday black folks desperate to build a community center. It’s important to this movie in showing Michelle (as well as the audience) the uncanny abilities of  this persistent young man who’s so determined to woo her, however frosty she may intend to be. Still, the film is most interesting when it’s just the two of them, bantering, bickering, airing their dreams.

What fascinates me is the fact that this is a love story featuring a sitting president. There’ve been lots of movies about U.S. chiefs of state, but most of them have been long out of office when they appear on the screen. Probably the president most often depicted in Hollywood movies is Abraham Lincoln, who’s featured in everything from the original Birth of a Nation to Spielberg’s masterful Lincoln. Most films in which he appears focus on the Civil War, but John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln tells the story of a young man (played by Henry Fonda) discovering his talent for law and finally deciding to run for political office. Lincoln’s future wife Mary Todd is a character in the Ford film, but so is Lincoln’s legendary lost love, Ann Rutledge.    

The union of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, seemingly a mismatched duo, is one that has long intrigued many Americans. But the TV miniseries dealing with their courtship and marriage, Eleanor and Franklin, did not appear until 1976, long after both were dead. I’m not sure I’d want to see the re-enacted wooing of George and Barbara Bush (dull?), nor that of John and Jacqueline Kennedy (disturbing?) on screen. My colleague Will Swift, distinguished president of the Biographers International Organization, has published Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage. Though most screen depictions of Nixon make him into a villain or a buffoon, Will’s book has persuaded me that the awkward Dick’s courting of glamorous Pat might lend itself to an interesting film. But a portrait of the Clintons (or the Trumps) finding love—that’s a bit too colorful for me.

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