Monday Morning Critic – Southside With You And The Curious, Modern Myth-Making of Sitting Presidents


This is the dog days of film, as August and September tend to be bad periods for film en masse because it’s that moment between the two best periods of the year. The summer blockbuster season ends in July and Oscar season begins in October, for the most part, and thus August and September are essentially dumping grounds for stuff that doesn’t quite fit into either. There’s always a handful of films that should’ve been in one of these seasons that wind up for one reason or another, winding up in the dumping bin that is the 60 days between billion dollar explosions and people trying to win as many ten dollar awards as they can.

The Magnificent Seven and Sully were the two biggest films that wound up in this corridor for 2016; the former because Westerns don’t draw like they used to and the latter because it wants to get into that Flight level territory of commercial success/award winner. Those two remain the last two films of the year I’m actually genuinely excited to see, as well, because this year feels like 2015 in that it’s just very difficult to get myself pumped to see a movie in the theater.

Right now the best 90 minutes of cinema for me would be the opening episode of The Get Down, if it had been a theatrical release as opposed to the opening of a Netflix series.

Southside with You

It’s another year where there’s more thought provoking and interesting material on television, where story-telling has evolved at the highest levels, than on film. That’ll probably remain my thoughts when I post my Top 10 of 2016 list, I think, as there hasn’t been a lot to write about this year. Most of the films that have come out in this period haven’t been anything to write home about. It’s been a lot of garbage, some edgy but otherwise a number of innocuous films (War Dogs, Suicide Squad) found a way to make some money in this otherwise dead period of the year.

The one film that was an instant curiosity for me, and many others, was a fairly small indie that has a weird chance of making some noise this fall. A period piece, it’s the beginning of a love tale set in 1989. Southside with You focuses on the well written about tale of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his wife Michelle’s first date in the Southside of Chicago, 1989. He’s written about it himself and now Richard Tanne has taken all that’s been written about it and condensed it into a semi-fictionalized version of it.

While I have no issue with the film itself, as it’s an interesting (and quite good) film that should garner a handful of “Oh, guess I should track it down” type of award nominations, it represents something very curious trend that is virtually unprecedented in modern American political history. Following 2008’s W, a flawed biopic that didn’t give us any real insight into a sitting president, we get another look at a sitting president in the form of a character study. Both of those films follow in the tradition of Primary Colors, which was an extremely thinly veiled look at Hillary and Bill Clinton released during his Presidency that covered his run from outsider contender to President in 1992.

Savage Dragon #137 President Obama Image Comics

Southside with You is a love story about hope, about two people destined to make history but don’t know it. It’s also the best of the three films made in modern times about a sitting President, by far, because it’s not an agenda driven ego-fest from one side or the other. Barack Obama is a new attorney in a new town destined to embrace him as one of its own, wanting to make a difference in the world somehow. Michelle is his mentor for the summer, going out with him but “not on a date.”

What follows is what would be the start of a three-year romance. The Obamas as the first African-American President & First Lady respectively changed the course of American Presidential history in the process. While you may or may not be a fan of the President you can’t deny that the power of America is that the political class can be opened to everyone.

But the film doesn’t follow the whole Obama experience to the highest halls of American political power. It’s about that one night where two people who’d go on to change the course of history wound up finding one another on a blistery hot Chicago summer night.

It’s a curiosity that modern Presidents have stopped having their lives told years after their terms have ended and now are the subject if cinematic auteurs during their Presidency. The last three sitting Presidents have had fictionalized versions of their background in some biographical form while they’re in office … but Southside with You is the only one of the three that didn’t have a legendary cast with a director of significance. It’s kind of crazy to see the level of talent attached to the first two films in what should be called a “Sitting President Trilogy.”

Youngblood and POTUS Obama

Primary Colors was a prestige picture with an ungodly amount of talent attached to it. Mike Nichols, a Hall of Fame director (if film had a Hall of Fame) directed a cast that’d STILL garner attention if it was made today. It’d be the sort of film that would be considered inflammatory towards the Presidency if made now. It’s still a shockingly good film that holds up when you watch it today. Weird to think that there was a time when John Travolta wasn’t just a weird guy who occasionally acts, you know?

W was another attempt at a prestige picture by Oliver Stone, a two time Oscar winner, and basically summed up Stone’s interpretation of the George W Bush Presidency as nothing but daddy issues. It should’ve been considered inflammatory … but it just wasn’t good enough to get that sort of reaction. Stone hasn’t had the sort of amazing film that broke into the American lexicon since Born on the Fourth of July, to be fair, and his last great film was two to three decades ago. W, when you watch it now, has more of a feeling of someone greenlighting it because it was good politics as opposed to good film-making.

A friend of mine commented, when I pointed this trend out, that in 2020 it’ll either by a Hillary Clinton film where she’s a clone of Wonder Woman, or Trump as a villain in a Die Hard remake, as the Presidential film de jour.

Southside with You doesn’t have either of those feels because it’s not about politics at its heart. It’s sort of refreshing to see a film about a politician’s past that isn’t purely from a partisan perspective, to be honest, because this is a film about the nature of hope. This is about two people with their lives ahead of them, not knowing just how they’re going to change the world.

It’s just a hot summer night between two people who fancy one another, nothing more. In the trend of modern presidential cinematic myth-making it’s refreshing to see a non-partisan tale about two people in a light romantic drama.

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Scott Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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