“The film moves with a lovely gracefulness”
A film focusing on the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama (nee Robinson), like almost all ideas, isn’t an inherently bad concept; the crippling element is trying not to make it a tacky display of foreshadowing with a reliance on the dramatic irony of the circumstance. You must recognize that the audience knows where this is going and, as a result, build the film off of the central characters.
That is where writer/director Richard Tanne, in his filmmaking debut, succeeds. While he drops more than enough hints and litters his film with cutesy, somewhat tacky sensibilities, Southside with You is admirable in its brevity and authenticity. It reminds you that there are not a great deal of films revolving around intimate relationships between African-Americans that aren’t offset, crippled, or plagued by violence or poverty. While Southside with You, set in Chicago, where both Barack and Michelle grew up, doesn’t pretend those issues exist, it doesn’t feel the need to detract from its two leads and its two quaint and assured lead performances to focus on what would ultimately complicate and stuff the film with themes and undertones it doesn’t need.
This is a first-date movie through and through – a film that would make a great companion to a real first-date. It’s as if Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise was reworked to focus on the Obama’s daylong date and removed the element of time to evoke the element of period and place. It’s not only fully about the Obama’s, but it’s about the way Chicago molded and shaped the two into who they are, again, without the need to fully detail and showcase the city’s multitude of problems.
Barack and Michelle are played by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter (Ride Along). Set in 1989, the two work at the same law-firm, with Barack serving as a summer intern and Michelle as a lawyer and an advisor to Barack, striving to bring bigger, more dramatic change. Barack initially picks Michelle up late in the morning so the two can attend a local church meeting about the city’s refusal to allow the neighborhood an adequate community center, but when he informs her that the meeting is not for several hours and they have some time to kill, he suggests they go to the local museum for their Afro-centric art show. Michelle is initially apprehensive, unwilling to call this particular outing a date for fear of occupational repercussions. She brings up observant and true statements about her being a woman in a corporate world of men and having to work twice as hard to prove her worth, but the fact that she’s also black erases all of that and makes her have to basically work “double-time” to seem even the least-bit competent.
Barack is much more free-spirited but wise in his observations. He recognizes Michelle’s worries, but sees them as unnecessary fear that’s established on the basis of assumptions and the fact that she’s unhappy with the relatively low-tier position at her job when both of them know she is capable of so much more. Nonetheless the two enjoy a stroll through an art museum – with one particular moment showing Barack recite the terrific Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” – attend the local meeting, which serves as the film’s fifteen minute centerpiece, and conclude the night with ice cream and a special viewing of Spike Lee’s new film Do the Right Thing, which is causing national controversy.
Sawyers plays Obama with the kind of confidence and politeness we’ve come to expect from him and his demeanor. He’s blunt but never rude, assured but never arrogant, and intriguing without acting as if he knows it. Sawyers’ mannerisms and voice lends a lot to his role in a way I can only compare to that of the way Kevin Spacey played Richard Nixon and Michael Shannon played Elvis Presley in this year’s Elvis & Nixon. While both performances are on very different levels, all of the above men had to bring something to a pop culture figures that have been parodied and lampooned countless times over the past years. They all succeed in keeping a humble but very believable presence throughout the course of the film.
Meanwhile, Sumpter embodies Michelle delightfully, with a similar sense of confidence and an emphasis on eloquent, thoughtfully-spoken opinions and feelings. She communicates her emotions in a variety of different ways, sometimes saying more than Tanne’s dialog ever could, with her eyes and eyebrows. She’s fun to watch and gives the First Lady an added sense of humanization.
The film is the definition of blink-and-you-miss-it; you almost can’t help but question, “that’s it?” when the credits begin to roll after only seventy-seven minutes. But Southside with You‘s brevity is one of its biggest attributes. It makes itself a perfectly available compliment to a post-dinner date for a couple, or a simple, elegant watch that still leaves you with a bit to chew on in the way relationships form and the way 1989 Chicago shaped the two people currently living in the White House with their two daughters. There’s not a great deal to Southside with You, but there shouldn’t be; despite sporadic tackiness and jabs to the audience about the inevitability of this couple, the film moves with a lovely gracefulness and captivates on the basis of its characters alone.