The basic template of two young people walking and talking their way around a city, slowly falling in (or out) or love as they do so, has been done before, perhaps most beautifully in Richard Linklater’s classic Before Sunrise. But the rather simple and romantic premise takes on a whole different layer of meaning when those two people happen to be Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, later to become the President and First Lady of the United States. That’s the idea behind Southside with You, an intimate look at the first date of two people – both ambitious and guarded in their own way – who would go on to make history together.
At least he thinks it’s a first date. When fresh-out-of-Harvard lawyer-in-training Barack (Parker Sawyers) asks Michelle (Tika Sumpter, also a producer on the film), a lawyer at the Chicago corporate firm he’s spending the summer of ’89 at, to accompany him to a community meeting on the city’s South Side one Saturday afternoon, she’s going because of what she says is her interest in local affairs. Barack straight up wants to take her out, but Michelle is concerned about her image at the law firm: what will the all-white staff say about the sole black (and female) attorney dating the first African-American male that walks through the doors?
That issue is addressed repeatedly throughout their long day together, which features stops at an Afrocentric art exhibit, a bar, a restaurant, a movie and, yes, that community meeting. And during the course of the day, as they discuss politics, culture, black America and the law while gradually and carefully revealing more about themselves to each other, Barack begins to wear down Michelle’s resistance as he insists that there’s nothing wrong with the two of them seeing each other. I’m guessing she’s probably glad nowadays that it went the way it did.
Southside with You is a small and relatively quiet film about two people falling in love, and the film lives or dies on the performances of its leads. Parker Sawyers is, frankly, a revelation: without doing a slavish imitation, he looks and sounds uncannily like the president, right down to the rhythms of his speech and his facial expressions. Obama has always been known as a man who does not get emotional in public, and we see that even here in the younger version; we also see a young, brilliant college student who is haunted by the death of his father and the incomplete nature of the elder Obama’s life. But then in the community meeting scene, which forms the centerpiece of the film, we glimpse in his address to the locals the seeds of the orator and statesman he later becomes – thoughtful, empathetic and deliberate, ready to welcome opposing views but equally ready to rebut them in clear terms.
Sumpter is less impressive, and I’m not sure if that’s due to her performance or the way Michelle is written. But the future First Lady comes across as, at least at first, superficial and not entirely likable, which kind of throws off their chemistry for a good portion of the film. I found myself wondering what exactly it was that drew the film Barack to the Michelle in the movie, given the charisma and warmth the real-life one exudes in the present. But she eventually warms up, her own fierce intelligence matched by a thawing sympathy, and by the time they share their first kiss the viewer is invested in watching these two get together.
Or not. The beauty of Richard Tanne’s directorial debut is that if you were not familiar with who these two people are and what they go on to achieve, you could be effortlessly charmed by this film and by Tanne’s portrayal of the community in which it’s set. And even if you oppose or have opposed the Obama Administration in any way, you might still be able to appreciate the rambling, sweet-natured way in which Tanne tells the story of how they got together. But the fact is that there’s probably no way to watch this film without putting your own personal politics into it. If you are a supporter of the president and generally like the First Family, you will find this a delight without it also being a canonization. But if you have hated them from the beginning with that special intensity that haters seemed to have developed for this president and his family – for reasons rational or not – then you will not enjoy this experience and probably should skip the whole thing.
But if you can put politics aside – as Obama said early (and futilely) in his term that he wanted to do – Southside with You is breezy, warm and romantic, if ultimately somewhat slight. In other words, the complete opposite of the past eight years.
Southside with You is in theaters this Friday, Aug. 26.