True life is almost never as good as the movies, which is why you rarely see a romance or romantic comedy made about real people. First time writer/director Richard Tanne has decided to buck that trend in perhaps the most audacious way possible: By detailing the first date between President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
The resulting film, Southside with You, is not a documentary or a biopic, but rather a Richard Linklater-style look at their daylong date in the summer of 1989. Barack (Parker Sawyers), then a summer intern in the Chicago law firm at which Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) worked, has convinced Michelle to accompany him to a community meeting in his old neighborhood. And if they happen to do other things like catch a bite to eat, see an art exhibit, or watch a movie along the way, all the better.
As in Linklater’s Before … series, almost nothing of consequence happens, and yet the story is full of consequential moments. The two butt heads over their romantic and professional prospects, with Michelle unwilling to cede ground on the former, since she is technically his supervisor. Little by little, though, Barack gets on Michelle’s good side, using his charm, intelligence, and speaking skills to win her over.
The film is full of great individual scenes, but it’s the one detailing the community meeting that will be remembered most. Many now acknowledge Barack Obama as a superb orator, and this scene shows how he utilized his extemporaneous skills at an early age. The scene does an excellent job of acknowledging Barack’s future without outright saying it, and it serves the story at hand.
Playing two people as well known as Barack and Michelle Obama can be tricky, but Sawyers and Sumpter acquit themselves well for the most part. Sawyers mostly eschews copying Barack’s voice, instead opting for mannerisms and movements that echo him. In an act of moviemaking magic, Tanne and cinematographer Patrick Scola occasionally frame Sawyers in such a way that you’d swear it was Obama himself in the scene.
Sumpter, who is also a producer on the project, has a bit of a rougher time with her role. Acting-wise she is Sawyers’ equal and sells every emotion the film asks her to sell. But she uses a throaty voice to approximate Michelle’s speaking manner, an affectation that is distracting on multiple occasions.
Otherwise, Southside with You is a transporting experience, both literally, as you feel as if you’re walking or driving in 1989 Chicago, and figuratively, as the romantic beginnings of the future President and first lady are almost impossible to resist. Some may avoid it for political reasons, but movie fans with open minds will be greatly rewarded.