Southside with You (2016) / Romance-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference
Running Time: 84 min.
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
Director: Richard Tanne
Screenplay: Richard Tanne
Review published August 28, 2016
Southside with You is a bit of a bold undertaking in terms of theatrically released films, in that it gives an intimate romantic portrayal of the current President of the United States and his wife, the First Lady, while they're still in a power position to condemn it as complete bunk. It also gives an intimate "day in the life" of public figures in a way that is very personal and romantic, relying on the actors to imbue their real-life characters with enough believability to make us forget that we're watching stand-ins and become invested in the drama we see before us as actually something that is happening to Barack Obama (Sawyers, Austenland) and Michelle Robinson (Sumpter, Ride Along 2).
The story, inspired by anecdotes chronicled in the memoirs of their actual first date, begins in August, 1989, in the South Side of Chicago, on a day in which a young, smart and career-minded corporate lawyer, Michelle Robinson, accepts spending the day with a Harvard-bound summer office mate, Barack Obama, on the pretense that they attend a housing project community meeting as colleagues (in real life, this happened on an occasion after their first date), making whatever else they do socially that he has planned definitely not a date. Obama, driving his rusted-out car to greet her, feels differently, and makes it his task to convince her otherwise before the day is through. They eat, they walk, check out other spots in the area, and discuss art, the pleasure of the TV show "Good Times", Ernie Barnes' art, Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry, and discuss their family and personal history, becoming more acquainted, but still differing on just what it is they're doing together. Obviously, unless you're an amnesiac on the level of Leonard from Memento, you know where things will eventually go.
Those who see Southside with You will instantly see that writer and debut director Richard Tanne is lifting wholesale the formula of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise in his approach to capturing romance. If you've seen that 1995 film, it's a redundancy that makes the early going of Tanne's film seem stale out of the gate, as we watch the two main characters walk and talk around the city, stopping to observe an art exhibition, or an outdoor dance performance in a neighborhood park, seeing them grow either closer or further apart as they share and discuss in their mutual experience. The two leads perform magnificently, capturing the nature of the people they're portraying without resorting to caricature or stereotype. It's remarkable how we come to accept them as younger versions of their real-life counterparts merely through their mannerisms and the cadence of their line deliveries.
Regardless of the politics, it's an interesting film just to be able to see, at least speculatively, two major figures in politics in their relative infancy, absorbing the world around them, as well as bouncing off ideas on each other, that would form the basis of their beliefs later in life. It's a humanizing film, where we see Obama dealing with the negativity he feels toward his father, as well as his chain smoking habit, and his struggles with finding not only a relationship, but lasting employment. But there's also the Obama charm and swagger that is there, as well as his optimism in social service, which would eventually be helpful in wooing a nation to elect its first African-American president, but on this day, to win over the romantic feelings of a woman who so clearly has defined, at least in her own mind, the boundaries of where she is willing to go with him.
There's a nice sense of the period, where music plays from the likes of Janet Jackson, and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing is the film topic of conversation for those interested in the social issues of the day. The story is interesting above and beyond just the showcasing of a young version of our White House residents finding love in one another, mostly because it is also a look back to a different time and place as people, and as a society.
Just like first dates themselves, Southside with You starts off a bit stiff and awkward, as we're unsure of just what we're getting into, eventually coalescing into something more as we see what's before us in an entirely new light with each passing observation or moment of welcome intellectualism. While it won't turn around those viewers staunchly against Barack and Michelle Obama because of political reasons, who will no doubt ignore the film outright as some sort of hero-worshiping fan-fiction for the political left, as an exercise in finding a human aspect to our leaders through a narrative that evokes an examination in art, society, and ability for people to become those leaders even in places and stations in life where it would seem impossible, Southside with You is an entertaining and illuminating romance that is much more than just watching two people find receptive feelings toward one another.
And unlike the Before series, we already know where these characters will be every nine years that follow.
©2016 Vince Leo