Southside With You is a romantic drama in the vein of the Before Sunrise trilogy – a man and a woman meet, they walk and talk leading to the blossoming of romance. The big draw with this movie – the man we are seeing is a young Barack Obama, the woman is Michelle Robinson (later Obama) and what we watch unfold is a dramatization of their first date.
It’s the summer of 1989. Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) is a twenty five year old Harvard Law graduate working as a second year associate at a Chicago law firm. Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) is a twenty eight year old Harvard Law student and working at the same firm as a summer associate. Michelle finds it a struggle at the firm – it’s hard to get noticed let alone acknowledged for her hard work due to her gender and her race. The fear of being noticed for the wrong reasons is what has prevented her agreeing to go on a date with Barack. After much asking and persuasion she agrees to attend a community meeting with him – that’s only a small portion of the day they spend exploring Chicago’s South Side together.
The film is founded in truth. On their first date they did do the things their fictional counterparts do together – a visit to the art institute, lunch, ice cream and a visit to the cinema. It’s only the community meeting that did occur but may not have actually occurred on their first date. The rest is fiction. The conversations they have, the very conversation which allow them to peel back the layers and which allow them to explore each other, those are fiction. However they are inspired by what two politically informed and astute young individuals would have discussed within that socio-cultural-political landscape.
The rapid-fire dialogue that makes up these conversations is spell-binding – effortless, authentic and truly believable. Though the script is rooted in verisimilitude, with natural ebbs and flows that come with any first date, it is the strength of both lead performances that allow the film to shine as brightly as it does. Sawyers as Barack is incredible casting, possessing not only the look of the man who would one day become president but the same charm and energy. His manoeuvring, getting Michelle to agree to a date without her realizing it is date, comes across as charming as opposed to what could have been creepy and manipulative. The speech he delivers at the community meeting is his standout moment – fully articulating the passion and effortless grace of the now-current Leader of the Free World.
Sumpter, who is also one of the film’s producers, has the slightly more thankless task. Her Michelle is reluctant to be seen in public with Barack, rightfully believing how higher-ups in their law firm would respond, and even more reluctant to succumb to his charms. She’s far more reserved than Barack, quick to reprimand him for certain behaviors and reluctant to be seen dating a subordinate. This is all told with a graceful and nuanced performance, with Michelle coming across as cautious as opposed to heartless (a trait which is all-too frequently used with such character tropes). Her standout moment occurs after their watching of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” – her exiting the cinema results in exchange that is both hilarious and tragic in terms of its inevitability.
Southside With You is a beautifully shot, engaging and warm tale of two young people on the cusp of, well, everything. Ensuing preachy political messages in favor of exploring authentically nuanced courtship, the film ends up being tender and intimate. A walk-and-talk picture that is honest, unguarded and utterly convincing.
Dir: Richard Tanne
Scr: Richard Tanne
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear
Prd: Richard Tanne, Tika Sumpter, Robert Teitel
DOP: Patrick Scola
Music: Stephen James Taylor
Run time: 81 minutes
Southside With You is in UK cinemas September 30th