There's only one way you hold a nation as big and diverse as the United States together, and it's not with Congress, or even with the electoral college. It's with a story, an ongoing performance of a national identity and mission statement. This is why it wasn't a mistake for me to watch several of the Democratic National Convention speeches stoned this year, which is to say, it wasn't a mistake for me to experience all politics as theater.
Joe Biden, for example, was a revelation. In watching Biden's DNC speech, I was struck by two things at once: how phony he seemed on the one hand, and how sincerely dedicated he was to his performance on the other. Aided by chemical compounds, I experienced Joe Biden in hyper-reality, in layers, in multiple dimensions. Joe Biden the human? No idea what he's into. But Joe Biden the actor was great. And Joe Biden the character was fantastic. The actor performed a morally righteous white man with liberal principles of Scranton steel. That person may or may not exist in the breathing, farting meat-realm, but he existed luminously on the political stage.
No matter how you view the drone wars, or the number of deportations that took place during the Obama administration, or the expansion of fossil-fuel production on public lands, there's little argument that Barack Obama's political performance has radically reshaped America's national story to date. As much as some things have remained the same, Obama gave us something profoundly different from the last eight years, as well as something profoundly different from what will encompass the next one to two presidential terms. A Black president, yes. A mixed president, yes. A president who consistently demonstrated thoughtfulness, patience, humor, and warmth, yes. A president who made accessible health care a keystone of his presidency, yes. One of the most skilled orators Americans have seen in our lifetimes, yes.
Barack Obama became the latest chapter of the American story, and in response, white America is now trying to burn the book.
In service of the Obama story—and the bigger story outside all of that—Southside with You presents a presidential rom-com in the midst of one of the ugliest election seasons in recent memory. The film, which I did not watch stoned, follows a young, chain-smoking Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and a deeply principled Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) as they traverse Chicago's South Side on their first "date." The tension throughout is that it's not really a date, at least not until Michelle says it is. She's Barack's adviser at the law firm where he's working for the summer, and as she explains early on in the film, she has to work doubly hard to be taken seriously because she's a woman, then thrice as hard because she's black.
It may be difficult for viewers to believe that the real Barack and Michelle spent so much of their first date outlining their childhoods, their experiences with structural oppression, and their theories of change as Movie Barack and Movie Michelle did. But that stuff doesn't really matter anyway. What matters is the story. And Southside with You, while sweet and overly schmaltzy at times, powerfully reminds viewers that the story the Obamas gave us over the past eight years—an eight years that may look a paradise if Trump wins—is one worth holding onto and retelling for future generations.
We saw that story in both Michelle and Barack Obama's dazzling performances at the 2016 DNC, in a story spanning three centuries that Michelle Obama packed into a single sentence. "That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight," Obama told her rapt audience. "The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves." The Obamas' first date turned out to be a world-historical event.