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Review: Southside with You (2016)

Southside with You (2016)

Directed by: Richard Tanne

Premise: Set on a summer afternoon and evening in 1989, a young Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) goes on her first date with future husband Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). The pair spends the day on the south side of Chicago.

What Works: The first thing to understand about Southside with You is that it is not a political film, at least not overtly. Instead, the picture is a sweet story of a man wooing his future wife. Southside with You most closely resembles Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy in its concept and style. As in Linkater’s films, Southside with You primarily consists of two people walking and talking and yet it is always engaging. This is the kind of picture that appears to be improvised or shapeless but is actually very carefully written and acted. For a love story to work the audience has to want to see these people get together and the story must include a compelling force keeping the lovers apart. Southside with You succeeds on both accounts. The film benefits from perfect casting with Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama and Tika Sumpter as Michelle. For eight years the Obamas were ubiquitous in our everyday lives and so the actors face a challenge of portraying these people in a way that corresponds with our knowledge of who they were, how they spoke, and how they moved but without becoming caricatures. Sawyers and Sumpter succeed terrifically. They possess the vocal intonations and physical mannerisms of the Obamas but they do so in ways that are convincing and organic. They also have the natural rapport that made the Obamas such a likable and photogenic couple. But Sawyers and Sumpter also make their characters into complicated and flawed people and it is here that the movie finds its conflict. As portrayed in Southside with You, Michelle and Barack were coworkers at a corporate law firm where she was an associate and he was a summer intern. Michelle did not want to date him because she felt that an office romance with an intern would compromise her professional image and jeopardize her career. Knowing that, Barack invites her to join him at a community meeting as a way to spend time with her but Michelle deduces Barack’s ulterior motives and her fears and misgivings must be overcome if they are to have a relationship. For the purposes of the movie, this conflict works and it enriches their courtship. Real life dramas must overcome the sense of inevitability; we all know these two will get together and yet the characters are so well drawn and the drama of the relationship is so compelling that the story remains engaging. It is a testament to the success of this movie that it would play as a successful romance even if these people were fictional nobodies. 

What Doesn’t: Southside with You is based on true events culled from publically available information but this is such an intimate story that there’s no telling how accurate this is especially when it comes to the finer details such as the dialogue. Some degree of artistic license is inherent to all dramatizations of real life people and events and in the case of Southside with You fidelity to the facts may be beside the point. This film isn’t really interested Barack and Michelle Obama as political or historical figures. It is about ordinary people at the dawn of their relationship and to their credit, the moviemakers get beyond caricature to portray the couple as complicated people. But therein lies a problem. The fact is that the Obamas are political people. There is no escaping that the reason Southside with You exists is because of who Barack and Michelle Obama would become in the decades after this first date. To ignore that seems a little bit disingenuous.

DVD extras: Commentary track, artwork and animation, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Southside with You is an agreeable love story. The film is romantic but not schmaltzy and the lead actors are terrific in their roles. The film will obviously be of interest to those who were fans of the former First Couple but the movie’s appeal is broader than that.

Episode: #634 (February 12, 2017)