Southside with You, 2016.
Directed by Richard Tanne.
Starring Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Phillip Edward Van Lear.
On a summer’s day in 1989, Barack Obama took Michelle Robinson on what turned out to be their first date across Chicago’s South Side. One that included an art exhibition, live music, a community meeting and a movie, all chosen by him so they could get to know each other better. She was adamant it wasn’t a date, he had other ideas. And we all know he was right.
They’re one of the most famous couples in the world, but 27 years ago Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson both worked for the same law firm in Chicago. They were among the few African-Americans in the company and she was his supervisor. We all know things worked out, but Richard Tanne’s Southside With You takes us right back to the very start of their relationship, giving us plenty of pointers to the future along the way.
Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is adamant from the outset that it isn’t a date. As Barack’s (Parker Sawyers) supervisor at work, she didn’t think it was appropriate for them to be anything more than friends. And, while he appears to go along with that, he’s quietly using his easy charm and relaxed manner to win her over. Not that it’s an easy job, because she’s defensive to the point of prickly and he’s desperately trying to cover up his smoking habit because he knows she disapproves. It’s not an auspicious start.
The context to their relationship is important. Chicago’s South Side was known for its predominantly black population, high crime rate and poor housing. That said, we’re presented with both sides of the picture – the middle class, as represented by Michelle and her family, and the less affluent areas, including a memorably gloomy underpass with different names written on every single brick in the wall. Both play a role on that first date, either as just a setting or as something more.
As first dates go, this is something of an epic, although you do raise an eyebrow at him taking her to a community meeting in the full knowledge that he’s going to be one of the speakers. It turns out to be a return visit to where he’d been a community activist a few years beforehand and it’s also where the film displays its leaden feet. Admittedly, Obama didn’t become an orator overnight once he became president, but his speech to the group is clearly designed as a forerunner of “Yes, we can!”. This time it’s “They say no. We carry on.” Not quite as snappy, and very obviously heading in one direction.
It’s all part of a rose-tinted look ahead to the future and the people Barack and Michelle were to become. We see the start of their respective trademarks – his ability to make speeches and hers to engage with people. While they’re watching some live music, a little girl invites Michelle to dance and she enters into the spirit of things with huge enthusiasm. Which makes you wonder if perhaps she shouldn’t have gone into politics herself. There’s still time ……
Sadly, the script isn’t always all it could be. Instead of talking to each other, there are times when it sounds like the couple are simply making speeches to each other. It’s close to being a two-handed film and Tanne has played a blinder in his choice of leads. Parker Sawyers hits the spot as Obama: physically, he looks like he could mature into the current president, he captures that easy, loose-limbed charm and reproduces those familiar speech rhythms with ease. And Tika Sumpter is an equally good Michelle, more than holding her own with the high flyer and concealing her natural warmth behind a defensive exterior. Until, of course, she melts – just like the ice cream he buys her.
First and foremost, Southside With You is a romance, but with added interest because of the couple at the centre, a couple that we all feel we know even though we don’t. It may not be wholly successful as a love story – possibly because we know the ending – but Sawyers and Sumpter keep its head above water with style and warmth.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★