Image courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions
You'd think a woman who closed out the summer single AF would be a little bitter about checking out a romance movie alone. But my love of the First Family runs so deep I was willing to see Southside With You solo. When I settled into a chair inside the theater, what I expected was to spend the next 90 minutes in a black love bubble, what I did not expect was a complete upending of the "Angry Black Woman" stereotype. Southside With You is as much a story about President Barack Obama's first date with First Lady Michelle Obama as it is the story of how Michelle Robinson navigated both love and career successfully as a black woman in a world that wasn't interested in her having either.
Please believe I took notes.
California's black population is less than 7 percent. So, when you factor in an endless list of variables—gender, sexual orientation, age, availability—it's no wonder that I and so many of my beautiful, accomplished black women friends have cried over the dearth of suitable black male suitors. We're often encouraged to date outside our race, but I fully understood what Barack meant when he told Michelle that he stopped dating white women after a white partner brought him home and he looked up at all the photos of white faces on the wall and realized, "I couldn't spend any more of my life being an outsider." I spend much of my life traveling in spaces where I am the only black face or one of few; I don't want to come home to that feeling, too. I'll accept love in any form it presents itself in, but I believe this is why so many black women are keeping the hope for black love alive. I'm just a Michelle out here looking for her Barack.
But in 1989, over on the Southside of Chicago, Michelle Robinson, played by Tika Sumpter, wasn't worried about a man. She was focused on her law career. She agreed to an outing with Barack, played by Parker Sawyers, but made it clear it wasn't a date, even though he clearly believed it to be one.
We followed the couple through scene after scene of smart black banter that flitted across black cultural touchstones such as Good Times , Gwendolyn Brooks and Do The Right Thing. As an audience we began to wonder why Michelle wouldn't let Barack shoot his shot. Yes, they work at the same law firm and she's concerned about office gossip, but we found ourselves pulling for Barack to get what he wanted. We wanted her to stop being so difficult .
Michelle did eventually warm to Barack's advances and leaving a showing of Do The Right Thing , they ran into a senior partner at their law firm. Although Michelle had been at the firm longer than Barack and held a higher title, the partner gave Barack all the glory and, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, instructed Michelle to take good care of Barack.
Michelle was humiliated. She was angry. She went off on Barack. This was why she didn't want to go out on a date with him. Why couldn't he have just respected her boundaries like she asked? She explained that as a woman she has to work so much harder to be respected and her blackness cancels out all of that hard work and she is left working even harder to advance in her career. Until this moment, Barack didn't get it. We as an audience didn't get it. Society doesn't get it.
Black women are often pegged as angry, but what isn't understood is that we're under so much additional pressure to gain any amount of status or respect in this society we aren't afforded the luxury to be easygoing. And we are among a special cohort of women who are penalized for that success when we do achieve it. We are not good enough and too much at the same time. Michelle Obama is too angry. Serena Williams is too confident. Misty Copeland is too muscular. Yet, still we strive.
This movie is so much more than a romance movie. It's about so much more than putting positive images of black love on display. This movie felt like a love letter to black women. Sitting there in that dark theater, it was like a light came on and illuminated some of my core struggles as a black woman today. Much of the conversation in the film was fictionalized, but it all felt real to me. I could even relate to discussions around Michelle fighting with herself because she wanted the status and power that came with working at a high-powered law firm, but didn't know how to reap the rewards of that lifestyle and do work that actually mattered; work that was going to change the world. Once you become the black woman that finally won the fight for a seat at the table, it's really hard to give up that seat, even if you don't have an appetite for what's being served.
Michelle wasn't being difficult. She just wasn't sure if Barack was going to be worth complicating her life over. Sometimes it's hard to tell when the right love's come along, the type of love that's worth risking it all for. I think we all know what decision Michelle made by the end of the film.