[This is a re-post of my Southside with You review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The film is now playing in theaters.]
Going into Southside with You, writer/director Richard Tanne’s drama about the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama, I was curious to find out why this film exists. There’s nothing remotely scandalous or dramatic about the first date between our nation’s First Couple, so what’s the need to chronicle the event in Before Sunrise-esque fashion? But once I was watching the film I understood: Barack Obama’s presidency is an undeniably historic event in our nation’s history—he’s the first non-white President ever, and Michelle is the first non-white First Lady ever, so understanding the “origin story” and background of this couple is actually quite noteworthy. They bring an entirely different point of view to the White House given their backgrounds, and by chronicling their first date and showing shades of the people they would become, Tanne offers a sweet, oftentimes too on-the-nose Meet Cute of historic importance, anchored by a pair of fantastic performances by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers.
Very much inspired by Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, which followed a single day’s conversation between two would-be/have-been lovers, Southside with You begins the morning of Barack and Michelle’s first date, in the summer of 1989 in Chicago, and encompasses the events of the entire day. While Michelle is under the impression that she’s simply meeting her colleague to accompany him for a meeting, Barack quickly makes it clear that he’d like nothing more than to make this an official date. Thinking a romantic relationship unprofessional, Michelle maintains that it’s not a date until she says so, but agrees to accompany Barack to an art museum and a walk through the park before a community meeting later in the afternoon.
The conversation between the two covers plenty of ground, from religion to aspirations to Barack’s complicated relationship with his father. Indeed, while Tanne’s script wants to make clear parallels between who Barack and Michelle were in the 1980s and what kind of President and First Lady they become, the dialogue is at times strained and inelegant as certain topics feel unnatural, arising only because they have significance to the Obamas’ later life.
But for the most part, the film’s lack of subtlety is forgivable. Barack gives a rousing speech during the community meeting that maybe feels a bit too familiar, but the guy didn’t simply acquire great oratory skills once he took office; the script may be obvious but it’s not misleading. And this isn’t hagiography either—Barack is honest about his difficult relationship with his father, and the religious beliefs of Barack and Michelle are directly addressed. The film even opens with Obama lighting up a cigarette, which is a frequent occurrence throughout the film as Michelle looks on in disapproval.
What really makes the film, though, is the performances of Sumpter and Sawyers. They transcend simple impressions and manifest as three-dimensional characters. Sumpter is strong-willed, a bit contentious, and very sharp, while Sawyers’ performance is just the right kind of laid-back with an undercurrent of sincerity throughout. They make no efforts to smooth out the rougher edges of their personalities either, as Sawyers’ Obama can be pushy and a bit cocky, while Sumpter’s coldness is at times tough to crack.
Ultimately, though, while this is a film about our President and First Lady, it is at heart a love story. Barack and Michelle argue about aspirations, their backgrounds, and their current corporate-geared jobs, but the romantic spark between the two flows just beneath the surface, culminating in an incredibly sweet and touching moment of passion towards the end of the film. If you remove the historic importance of these two characters, Southside with You still mostly works as a simple love story between a pair of intellectuals striving for greatness.
Tanne makes the jump to feature film territory with ease, guiding this story along with elegance to spare. The cinematography by Patrick Scola is striking, and paints a warm portrait of the city where Barack and Michelle got their professional starts. The soundtrack as well is time and character appropriate, and if you know the frequently-told story of this particular date, you’ll be happy to know the film does include Barack and Michelle attending a showing of Spike Lee’s groundbreaking Do the Right Thing.
To tell a love story about a sitting President was a bold move by Tanne, especially since the film eschews scandal or controversy by sticking to the facts. And while this isn’t an obvious choice of material in chronicling the life of our nation’s first black president, it proves to be a touching one. Moreover, the film is just as much about Michelle—clearly a strong influence on Barack’s policies and passions—as it is about our president, which makes it all the more satisfying. While the script itself is at times very obvious (sometimes distractingly so), it charms more often than not and is ultimately a very sweet movie about a very important couple in the history of the United States.