Eight years ago, Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W. opened in theaters. Strangely toned and not particularly good – the film resembled an extended SNL sketch without the jokes – the movie was nonetheless a peculiar and fascinating novelty as it explored the life and presidency of a then sitting Commander-in-Chief, something we hadn’t really seen before save from the obscure 1963 John F. Kennedy bio PT 109. Now arrives Southside With You, a new feature film that takes a look back at the early days of Barack Obama, specifically his first date with future wife Michelle. The film opens mere months before he departs the White House and while two movies hardly constitute a trend – curiously, another Obama bio entitled Barry is also coming soon – if this short-standing tradition holds up, we just might have a cinematic Molotov cocktail in four or eight years time based on our current political climate (either way, enterprising hairstylists may want to start fashioning blonde wigs). But that’s for the future.
While Stone attempted to raise questions on Bush’s legacy and otherwise stir the pot for liberals and conservatives alike with W., Southside With You – written and directed by Richard Tanne (in his feature debut) – is an otherwise affectionate and fairly apolitical chronicle. Chicago, 1989 – a young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) is a summer associate at the law firm Sidley Austin and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) is his adviser at the firm. One summer day, they agreed to attend a Southside church event together where a meeting concerning a stymied community center was being held. Nearly instantly, with a brisk and charming rhythm, Tanne cleverly uses a nice shorthand to introduce his two iconic characters as well as establish a time and a place. There’s a twinkle to the film from nearly the start as young Barack and Michelle meet on screen for the first time. She chides him for being late as he charges with a clearly smitten smile; it’s a memorably novel meet-cute moment: “When POTUS met FLOTUS.”
Rooted on an anecdote neither party likely could have thought would be the subject of a feature film one day and likely fictionalized to support an easy-going narrative, this Before Sunrise-take on presidential bios (a genre Southside With You holds on its own), Barack and Michelle walk and talk, visit a local art museum and culminate their day with a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Tanne presents a casual yet alert thoughtfulness throughout – significantly as the diverse Southside neighborhoods background the two would-be lovers. What’s also striking is how the two challenge one another nearly from the start: he on her career principles, she on the his judgement towards his late father. On both ends, they are blunt, straight-forward yet never cruel and boost their arguments with an intelligent and assured confidence. More striking is through Tanne’s sensitively calibrated dialogue and the adept chemistry of the two leads, the film is able to unpack so much Obama lore and yet with such casual ease. Southside With You never feels like a history lesson and fairly quickly supplants the novelty of its own simple premise.
Surprisingly, the film even manages to delve far deeper than that simple novelty. As Barack and Michelle tour the Southside of Chicago – he conveniently scheduled their date a few hours before the church event was slated to start as she stays adamant that this is “not a date” at all – it’s somewhat surprising how little it has to do with Barack and Michelle at all in the end. Yes, Sawyers and Sumpter prove admiral technicians at mimicking the Obamas speech and mannerisms and there’s certain winks and nods here and there that point to their political future, but the joy of Southside With You comes in watching two poised and intelligent young African-Americans charging and challenging one another along the way on matters of family, faith, values and race.
The major “Obama” moment, so to speak, occurs at the Southside church itself. The centerpiece sequence is amusing from the start as Barack, clearly on a home playing field, introduces Michelle to various organizers and attendees who happily squeal, “Finally, a sister!” on meeting Barack’s “woman.” Michelle is hardly impressed but that changes quickly after Barack delivers a rousing and impromptu speech to the delegation which resourcefully and righteously extols the discipline needed for organizing and the dangers of placing too much judgement on anyone, particularly an opponent. The speech itself is where Sawyers’ performance fully registers as he nails Obama’s cadence, authority and grace as a public speaker; it rattles Michelle (and Sumpter) as well. Perhaps this is “a date” after all.
It’s Sumpter (also a producer on the movie) who is the quiet revelation in Southside With You. An actress most prominently featured so far in the Ride Along flicks as well as the Tyler Perry television series The Haves and Have Nots, she radiates with a poised and naturally un-fussy performance as the future First Lady. She makes palpable the film’s viewpoint of the difficulties and politics that concern not just being a woman, but a black woman which still resonate. That latter stretch has particular impact after a post-Do the Right Thing discussion and an unplanned meeting with one of their white supervisors at the firm. Tanne’s compassionate eye, coupled with the natural gloss of cinematographer Patrick Scola’s camera, lets the grace note land and gently enlighten without an unnecessary violin strum.
In the end, it’s a neat marketing hook (even if it may represent a certain Rorscharch test depending on one’s political perspective) to frame this quietly sweet and tenderly romantic comedy on Barack and Michelle’s first date. Had this been the Benny and Mia story, or some such, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest the film could have been just as artistically successful.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Who would have guessed that the most romantic movie of the summer would be, on paper, a political biopic? No matter of labels, Richard Tanne’s trim but resonant, lightly fictionalized take of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date is lovely and breezy and subtly substantive on its own right. Gifted actors Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter both prove themselves up to the task of portraying this most famous couple and display a natural rapport. Southside With You is a wonderful first date.