Politics & Policy

The Obamas’ Romantic Moral Shift

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in Southside with You (Miramax)
Southside with You’s fantasy connects to Herzog’s Internet nightmare.

Southside with You idealizes Chicago law-school graduate Michelle Robinson’s first date with Barack Hussein Obama — the couple that eventually became the 44th president of the United States and his First Lady. This virtuous rendezvous is less a convincing love story and more a continuation of America’s mysterious romance with the Obamas.

Writer-director Richard Tanne rushes into this hagiography before Obama’s two-term presidency is quite over. Tanne’s on-screen myth-making is a bland cocktail of race, class, and super-chaste sexuality, going so far past Authorized Flattery that it resembles a hustle — one of those advertisements shown to the assembled throng at the Democratic National Convention: a romance for political idiots.

Prim and proper Michelle (Tika Sumpter) agrees to accompany her law-firm co-worker Barack (Parker Sawyers) to a community meeting, but she insists on strict professionalism and no macking — or, as these bourgie strivers would put it, “no amorous liaison.” Still, there’s no frisson. She’s Ivy League prim and black-middle-class proper; he’s non-punctual, smokes, and drives a rusted-out heap to indicate his indifference to materialism. Each is more quietly ambitious than lusty. Their driving passion is political righteousness — putting the black community even before personal benefit. They revise the 1960s Super Negro idea that at one time was used to admonish Sidney Poitier’s singular standing. Now the mainstream media’s humorless adulation of political aristocracy results in this loftily sanitized view of the Obamas as the ultimate good Negroes — the other half of Barack’s bi-racial ancestry notwithstanding (as usual).

This is the same idealization that the American media used to mythologize Barack Obama even before he was actually elected, effectively warding off any skeptical inquiry into his history or personality that did not accept the legend he laid out in his own memoirs (Dreams from My Father, written when he was 35, and The Audacity of Hope, written when he was 46).

John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln, the most moving of all presidential hagiographies, could take white racial identity for granted, yet went to the heart of Lincoln’s humanity. Idolators always overlook Obama’s humanity, instead proffering black identity as his foremost trait, whether soliciting whites’ condescension or encouraging blacks’ vanity.

Actress Sumpter, who is also the film’s co-producer, clearly seems infatuated with Michelle’s status as a black female paragon (more than Condoleezza Rice), so Southside with You starts from Michelle’s perspective. Her family roots are shown, his are merely imagined. (“Like Nat King Cole and Patsy Cline” is how Obama describes his black–white parentage. In a phone conversation with his mother, he says Michelle’s “skin is of the darker persuasion.”) Even the opening scene of Michelle’s pre-date ablutions is intended to make female viewers relate to her, while Obama’s carefree cockiness manipulates a similar male response. This odd couple is presented as the African-American norm.

Southside with You is for moviegoers who never bothered with such black love stories as Nothing but a Man, For Love of Ivy, The Color Purple, Love & Basketball, Two Can Play That Game, or Breakin’ All the Rules. This supposed “all-American” love story is as bogus as the now-discredited “post-racial” canard that came into play immediately after Obama’s 2008 election. Sawyers’s Obama fits the thin, cagey celebrity we know (it’s an “artful” performance), while Sumpter’s Michelle is a disastrous contrivance: Her enunciation is too sharp; she talks “white” — not like someone from the South Side of Chicago — as if trying to always prove that she is not “ghetto.” They enjoy the first love scene on record where “work ethic” is an aphrodisiac.

Class-pandering of this sort could, interestingly, characterize personal eccentricities and reveal the couple’s common social desperation, except that neither dater seems to emerge from a recognizable community or ethos. This is how the filmmakers disguise the crucial (unacknowledged) irony that America’s “first black president” lacks slave heritage and has only a cursory relationship to the black experience that continuously suffers the sociological and genetic memory of slavery. The filmmakers also sidestep black Americans’ usually religious or politically radical methods of sustenance.

Tanne and Sumpter are caught up in a propagandistic MSNBC fantasy. They don’t dare employ the psychological scrutiny that Oliver Stone gave to Richard Nixon in Nixon or George W. Bush in W. Instead, something shiftier occurs: In the community-meeting scene, which presumes Obama’s commitment to grassroots black political causes, he gives purely selfless advice to hoi polloi. “I feel your pain,” he says (mimicking Bill Clinton). “Sometimes it hits me 100 miles away in class in Cambridge.” The Chicagoans ooh-ahh at this suave, manipulative Obama, so unlike the Scolder-in-Chief at those NAACP lectures where Obama dropped his r’s and g’s and affected “black” argot.

Note his answer to the black community folk’s complaints against the white power structure: “We have to understand who they are and what they need.” This explains Obama’s world-conquering strategy, just as it also divulges the film’s objective. Southside with You is conceived to capitalize on what the white power structure needs to believe about the 44th president. The film’s power-elite fantasy includes the community activist’s suggestion about local politics: He advises a vaguely socialist approach to the Democratic system (“Turn self-interest into mutual interest”), and this whips the black Chicagoans into a call-and-response cliché.

This supposed “all-American” love story is as bogus as the now-discredited “post-racial” canard that came into play immediately after Obama’s 2008 election.

Southside with You doesn’t take place in the down-and-funky Chicago of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. Tanne’s student-movie style is visually dull. When Barack and Michelle attend a screening of Lee’s Do the Right Thing — supposedly the irresistible choice for enlightened bourgeois blacks in the summer of ’89 — the clip suddenly reminds one what a real movie can look like. This film’s visual inexpressiveness exposes the black cultural pretense to which Obama’s most fervid promoters have always clung. The soundtrack’s radio hits (Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much,” Slick Rick’s “Young World,” Al B. Sure’s “Night and Day”) strike a groove, a nostalgic pleasure center in the brain, that is totally unrelated to the superficial interplay between the not-yet-lovers. They debate which Stevie Wonder album is the best. Obama’s nerdy knowledge of TV and “Afrocentric art” surpasses Michelle’s supercilious Brady Bunch preference. Throughout, Barack and Michelle recall the privileged white boomers of Before Sunrise: A perturbed Michelle demands: “Are you inquiring about my personal life?” When she asks about his “religious proclivities,” his evasion is peculiar: “Let’s just say I’m still evolving.” Their vocabulary would be worthy of a satirical routine — the kind of behavioral critique comedian Dick Gregory made his reputation on during the 1960s — but the Obama era has made even the concept of Uncle Toms passé. The American media’s Obama romance is all-protective. That’s why the film states Obama’s elusiveness only as a counterculture pothead joke: “A lot of my high school days I don’t remember. Let’s just say it got lost in a cloudy haze.”

All of Southside with You occurs in a social and cultural haze. That community-meeting scene, where fawning single mothers praise Obama’s role-model sexiness while cluelessly complaining about the reality of their own broken, manless circumstances, repeats the essence of Obama-era confusion and tacitly justifies it. Michelle corrects Obama’s judgment of his father, speciously saying, “All fathers’ lives are unfinished; that’s why they have children.” It’s another example of the film’s idolatry, proposing that Obama is the fulfillment of prophecy and dream.

#related#But it’s Southside with You that feels unfinished. Detached from the truth of African-American experience, its dishonest love story lacks the poignancy of personalities found in the special insight of true black movie romances like Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield in Sounder, Don Cheadle and Emayatzy Corinealdi in Miles Ahead, or Jamie Foxx and Gabrielle Union’s extraordinary discussion of piercing one’s skin in Daniel Taplitz’s Breakin’ All the Rules. Unlike those films, Southside with You is a projection of deracinated black characters, manipulated to support race- and class-based delusions by which the mainstream media and the political elite continue to misunderstand the black condition. Southside with You glorifies political totems who all but walk on water.

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Reveries of the Connected World

Mad-scientist Werner Herzog, now into his second career as a documentary-maker, has released the scariest of all his recent nihilistic non-fiction ventures: Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. It is an alarum about the Internet, a prophecy about man’s self-annihilating instincts as shown through interviews with awed scientists and skeptical victims of technology. Herzog catalogues many advances as well as traumas resulting from “progress.” His anticipatory doomsday vision includes a customarily brilliant Herzog image (a NASA rocket is launched screen right while cattle gallop across the bottom of the frame screen left). There’s even a connection to Southside with You, when a Carnegie Mellon brainiac predicts: “We’re due for a moral shift in what it means to be human.”

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.