My favorite kind of presidential films are those that take a look at the individual before they took the oath of the Oval Office. They could show a time or an event that went on to shape the character of a person who would go onto join one of the smallest living clubs on the planet earth. On the podcast, We use the films “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939) as good example of these kinds of films and “Barry” and Southside with You” (Both released in 2016) attempt to do the same thing, but ultimately don’t deliver of their campaign promise.
Coming first in chronological order of the life of the former President (but released second), the Netflix offering “Barry” shows a young Barack Obama (Devon Terrell) as he arrives to New York. He is shown as someone optimistic, but lost as he struggles with racism, his relationship with his mother and father and especially his place in 1981 Harlem as a biracial man that the world will only see as black. Things get more complicated as he develops a relationship with a young, white woman Charlotte (Note: after a quick internet search, there never was a real person named Charlotte, but she is instead a composite of relationships from this time in his life).
Although, I enjoyed some of the performances such as ray as Jason Mitchell as PJ and Anya Taylor-Joy as the before mentioned Charlotte, the film isn’t really about anything. By that I mean the closest we get to seeing the “character” of Barrack try to accomplish something in the film is the letter to his father he is struggling to write. By the end of the film, he is able to craft it, but only after his father has died and he (apparently) has alienated Charlotte, who’s only crime was that she loved him, despite being white. The film ultimately abandons us and runs out of ideas. This is evident in the montage of “running slash basketball slash Scenes with Charlotte” at the hour-twenty mark of an hour-forty film; A careless attempt to fill time.
The film “Southside with You” takes a vastly different approach by performing a writing exercise of sort. Taking place on a single day in the life of a now Chicago based Barrack Obama (this time played by Parker Sawyers ) and his legal advisor at the time Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), you get a fly on the wall perspective of what I guess the writer(s) consider their “first date”. She is opposed right off the bat for her own reasons (she wants to be taken seriously at their law firm and not seen as going after the “cute young black man”) and he pursues her relentlessly regardless.
What the film does accomplish is likability, which you instantly get from both the character of Barrack and Michelle. In fact, the film beats you over the head with likability. I mean, they are arguably two of the most impressive individuals, black or white, of the 21st century and the fact that they found each other in 1990 Chicago Illinois through some happenstance of the cosmos, is amazing in itself. Carried over from the first film are Barrack's feelings toward his father and briefly mentioned is his relationship with a white woman, but by this time it seems like he owns his responsibility in how that all went wrong (he says “I had growing up to do”). By the end of the date, Michelle has been won over and they have had their first kiss.
Although I enjoyed the performances of the two lead actors, I'm not sure where this film leaves its audience, as far as what the characters in the film have accomplished, besides planting the first buds of their love. Maybe thats what the film was after. You get a blurry polaroid snapshot of these two people before they become part of history, but if you’re looking for deeper substance then that, it hasn’t yet arrived.