Amid the current firestorm of political anxiety and absurdity emerges Southside With You, a sweet, unadorned romance that follows young Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson’s first date back in 1989. The film offers an unexpected but welcome respite from the oft ugly election drama that’s pervaded our lives as of late, reminding us that the talking heads we watch on cable and YouTube are, in fact, attached to real people with real feelings. While the Obamas haven’t historically had any serious issues being perceived as sensitive, hard-working people, it’s still a bit startling to see them clash wits and exchange flirty glances outside the presidential circus.
The film plays out in an immediately recognizable form to those familiar with Richard Linklater’s Before series or the late Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, following the future it-couple as they walk around Chicago and use the culture-rich city as inspiration for their high-minded, sometimes existential ruminations. Director Richard Tanne takes great care in making the city an integral part of the story, with Barack leading Michelle through an African history museum and looking on with a smile as she gets lost in dance to the rhythms of a drum circle in the park.
Setting is key, but the film’s true virtue lies in the leads’ tasteful performances. Parker Sawyers bears a semi-striking resemblance to the President (it’s mostly in his bone structure and toothy grin), and Tika Sumpter (who also acts as producer) actually bears little resemblance at all, but what they both capture so precisely is the keen intellect and fighting spirit the POTUS and FLOTUS are now so well known for. Few things are as uncomfortable as watching an actor do a cheap impersonation of a real-life figure, and Sumpter and Sawyers never cross that line, approaching the roles as they would a fictional portrayal.
The measured performances make Southside With You feel sincere and rooted in human emotion rather than a wink-winky account of an important day in American history. What Tanne’s made is an excellent date movie that has no higher ambition than to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. That’s not to say it’s a shallow affair, however; the dialogue, while not as spontaneous and flowing as the Before films’, sees Michelle and Barack have spirited tete a tetes about civic issues and compare and contrast their respective upbringings.
Driven and independent to the core, attorney Michelle isn’t immediately swept off of her feet by the cocky but thoughtful Barack, who in her eyes is far from a dreamboat. For starters, he’s a temporary associate at her corporate firm. Being caught on a date with a colleague would surely be career suicide for the only woman in her (white) male-dominated office, and when she susses out that Barack’s manipulated her into going out on a date (they were scheduled to attend a meeting for work), she’s none too happy.
The friction between the two continues throughout the movie, balancing out the more saccharine moments and stopping the movie short of hagiography. Neither protagonist is portrayed as flawless or even comfortable in their own skin (on several occasions, one will question whether the other is making the right life decisions), though there is a hero’s moment for Barack that sees him address and subsequently inspire a group of community leaders. He’s a natural leader and a gifted public speaker, but Michelle is as suspicious as she is impressed, calling out Barack’s decision to bring her to a place where everyone loves him and is more than willing to put a good word in her ear. There’s a nice push-and-pull dynamic at work here, and while the occasional line of dialogue comes across as slightly stilted, the onscreen romance feels genuine.
The indelible image of the Obamas waving and smiling in front of thousands of adoring citizens never leaves the mind throughout Southside With You, which speaks to just how effective a movie Tanne’s made. There’s no need to divorce yourself from the real-life Barack and Michelle to enjoy the movie because the emotions at the core of the story feel authentic. Did Michelle actually dance in the middle of a drum circle on that fateful day? Who knows? The question likely won’t occur to even the most strident fact-checkers because all they’ll be focused on is the gobsmacked look on Barack’s face as he marvels at his future wife.
Southside With You is a sweet date movie that serves as an unexpected respite from the current firestorm of political absurdity.