Southside with You
(Over the weekend, I pulled myself away from the Olympics (it was Sunday, and there were few events) to see the film, Southside With You. It's a movie loosely based on the real-life first date that a couple of lawyers took when they were both working at the Sidley Austin firm in Chicago. Generally that wouldn't spark much interest in fodder for a movie. In this case, their names were Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama.
I enjoyed the movie a lot. It's not typical for most films, in that it doesn't have a traditional story structure. It's simply what happens on their date -- they don't have their paths cross with international spies or have to be back home by nine for the babysitter and get detracted -- it's a date. Though maybe not a date, Michelle insists, until she says it is, concerned not only about mixing business with pleasure, but being involved with a summer associate for whom she's the supervisor. As such, the movie goes little slowly at times by usual movie standards, and is obviously not overly dramatic with conflicting plot points overlaid on the events, but I found it exceedingly thoughtful, smart, beautifully done, and able to have a respectable story structure on something that was so otherwise unstructured. And it's important to note how incredibly well-acted is – impressively so, making them both utterly believable. There's nothing cloying or precious about the portrayals by Tika Sumpter (as Michelle) and Parkers Sawyer (as the future president). No sense of winking at the audience or talking in platitudes as if One Day This Will Be Important. In all feels very natural. And to be clear, there is conflict, not just in Michelle's repeated insistence that this is not a date, but also some harsh personality hurdles that occasionally get in the way.
It was fun for me to watch, too, because I've mentioned here in the past how my oft-referenced friend Nell Minow has a strong family connection to the Obamas. Her sister Martha, now the Dean of Harvard Law School, was a law professor for the young Barack Obama. And she was so impressed that she contacted her father to say that she had the smartest student she'd ever had in her class, and that he should hire him at his law firm. Their father, Newton Minow, was working at Sidley Austin in Chicago. And the firm did indeed hire that young Mr. Obama. And Minow became his first political adviser.
(Newton Minow had been the FCC Chairman under President Kennedy, and is famous for referring at the time to television as a "vast wasteland." (It was a phrase that so upset TV producer Sherwood Schwartz, that to get some retribution, he named the boat on his upcoming series after the FCC Commissioner. The show was to be Gilligan's Island, and the boat -- with a slight spelling correction, became the SS Minnow. His attempt at retribution failed. The family and country loved the little boat.)
As I said, one of the conflicts in the film is Michelle's concern that her reputation at the law firm will be hurt if she's seen dating someone who also works there, especially a summer associate she oversees. A particularly dramatic scene in the film occurs when they go to see a movie (Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing), and when leaving the theater they run into one of the firm's partner's and his wife. That actually happened -- and the partner and his wife who they ran into on that first date was...Newton and Jo Minow. (The exchange happened differently in real life, as Nell told me, and when the film's writer/director Richard Tanne had an interview with Nell for her film column, The Movie Mom, he acknowledged that he'd had to change things from the reminiscence letter her dad had sent to Tanne for research.) In the film, the exchange takes place on the South Side; in real life it was downtown at Water Tower Place, a fancy high-rise mall with a Ritz-Carlton hotel on the upper floors. And while the partner in the movie is polite and nice, he's also a bit formal and stuffy, a little out of place. In reality, as I said, their relationship was very strong, as well as warm and friendly.
(Side note: I just love the idea of a film's writer/director, and the two stars going in for an interview with a movie critic, and it turns out that she's the daughter of one of the real-life characters. I have no doubt they were blown away.
By the way, there's a sequence in the film I loved for personal reasons, which would mean nothing to almost anybody. It's one of the more important scenes that takes place at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. As it happens, Nell Minow's mother Jo, who I note above, is Jo Baskin. Yes, that Baskin.
The only thing I'm not sure of is why the title is "Southside." In Chicago -- like I assume most cities -- it's referred to as "South Side." Maybe they thought it looked unique. No idea...
Here's the trailer. As you'll see, even from such short clips, these are wonderful portrayals by the two lead actors.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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