Southside With You, 2016.
Directed by Richard Tanne.
Starring Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers.
An invitation to a community meeting turns into a first date for Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson.
Regardless of logic, there’s always a disconnect that exists between figures of influence and the idea that they were once regular people, with regular lives. Southside with You does a remarkable job presenting two people who feel very much like the figures they’re playing but without making the film about who they become, current US President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama. Instead it’s about who they are on this day in 1989, two whip smart lawyers who like each other but aren’t, according to Michelle, allowed to date. When Obama reveals he purposely told her the wrong start time for the community meeting they agreed to attend together, her policy of not dating colleagues is put to the test, with hours to fill while they wait.
Between tent pole events of an art exhibit and the originally planned meeting, there’s an “anything’s possible” appeal to their walks through Chicago that Richard Tanne’s languid, dream-like direction plays into. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy is an easy influence to point to, but as a niche film genre with results that sometimes work better as examples of craft than as movies, Southside with You is the walk-and-talk at its best. Everything looks attractively lighted, and this fairy tale quality sells because of how it’s combined with performances grounded in realism.
Tika Sumpter renders Michelle’s struggle to hold back growing feelings, under the honest fear that they could topple her career, with grace, while Parker Sawyers’ ability to capture Barack’s oratory skills at the meeting comes to equal use offering up smooth excuses for inviting Michelle in the first place. These are full chemistry performances, and given the lack of a transcript to work with, the film’s dialogue reflects as much intelligence discussing the merits of Good Times as wanting to support local causes.
There are many places where Southside with You could’ve been used for a “politicians are people, too,” agenda. The way you know it’s not a gimmick is that the film works on its own merits. A movie around an unknown couple played by Sumpter and Sawyers would still be fantastic. The appeal of this couple being the Obamas is twofold. The chance to see their early resolve and fight, knowing where it will be channeled, is inspirational and the awareness that, out of this encounter, a happy marriage is born makes for a very pleasant feature.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
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