When Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) pulls out a cigarette and sits back inside his car with the rusted hole in the floor as the radio begins to play Janet Jackson’s "Miss You Much," you instantly realize that Richard Tanne’s Southside With You might transcend its skeptical billing as "the Barack and Michelle Obama date movie." It’s a love story for sure, but the drama — which debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday — has a lot to say about the events that shaped the 44th president of the United States and first lady we know today.
Southside centers on the infamous summer day in 1989 when Barack Obama, then a Harvard law student interning at the firm of Sidley Austin, took his work colleague, Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), to a community meeting in the South Side of Chicago. At the time, Michelle refused to call the outing a date, but it sort of became one — and Tanne does a wonderful job imagining how Barack would subtly make it so.
Picking her up three hours earlier than necessary, Barack convinces the seemingly annoyed Michelle to accompany him to the Art Institute, where there’s a new exhibit of African art on display. Tanne then stages a wonderfully written moment where Barack asks Michelle for her opinion of the TV show Good Times.
Michelle dismisses the question, noting that her family was more into The Brady Bunch. Recognizing why she was averse to Good Times in the first place, Barack reflects on how the initially stereotypical character J.J. — and, yes, you’ll hear a fictional Barack Obama say "Dy-no-mite!" — became less so as the series progressed and the writers began to explore the character’s talents as an artist. That, he explains, is how famed African-American artist Ernie Barnes became involved in the show and J.J. became more of a three-dimensional individual.
It’s a low-key moment in the film, but Sumpter’s reaction really makes it work. Michelle could never have believed that straitlaced Barack would even watch Good Times in the first place, and his anecdote makes her reconsider her initial opinion of him.
As their afternoon progresses, the two discuss everything from Michelle's real challenges working in a "white world" law office as an African-American woman to Barack's complex and incomplete relationship with his Kenyan-born father. She chides him for smoking. He is in awe that her brother was drafted into the NBA. She confides in him that her father has multiple sclerosis that's forced him to use crutches, but he still finds a way to get to work every day.
The revelations continue. Barack talks about how tough it was to live in Indonesia for a few years as a child — an aspect of his life that today is rarely discussed — and makes her realize that living in Hawaii is, in many ways, just like living in any other part of the United States. Michelle discovers that he no longer likes ice cream after working at Baskin Robbins for too many months. Barack admits that he doesn’t remember much of high school due to a "cloudy haze." And, most importantly, he learns that Michelle is scared of not being taken seriously by their white colleagues if anyone finds out the only two African-American employees at the firm are a couple.
The eventual meeting at the South Side church becomes an opportunity for Barack to impress Michelle in his element. The community has lost a long fight to get the city to build a community center, and those in attendance are angry their request has been ignored. Barack suggests a solution and showcases his political savvy in turning their frowns upside down with a "carry on" message. In theory the scene works, but it’s probably the only moment during the entire picture where Tanne makes a slight misstep. Even though it’s the middle of the afternoon, the church is so dark and the speech is so long that as a viewer, you begin to lose interest in Obama’s case to the congregation.
Afterward, Barack convinces Michelle to keep their "not a date" going with dinner and a movie, in this case Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. As history suggests, the "not a date" is quickly and charmingly turning into one.
Southside is Tanne’s feature-directing debut, and outside of that one community meeting scene mentioned above, he shows a tremendous amount of style and skill in how he imagines the conversation Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson had that day. That being said, it simply wouldn’t work without the superb performances by Sumpter — also a producer on the film — and Sawyers.
Sumpter utters a number of familiar Michelle Obama phrases in the screenplay, but she smartly transforms the character into her own. The veteran actress is so good here that you'll hope this film might begin to propel her out of throwaway roles in comedies like Ride Along and TV series such as The Haves and the Have Nots. Like many African-American actresses, she’s clearly too talented to keep playing these types of secondary roles.
In contrast, when he speaks, Sawyers — who arguably resembles the president less than Sumpter looks like Michelle — uses as much of Barack Obama’s now-familiar cadence as possible. There’s a quiet confidence to POTUS that Sawyers taps into even while portraying him at this stage of his life, but thankfully Sawyers never comes close to doing an impression of him. While some credit belongs to Tanne’s direction, Sawyers also perfectly plays Barack's affection for Michelle with no sense of desperation, although he does a wonderful job of hinting that he’s already fallen for her.
Regardless of your political affiliation, with the Obamas' time in the White House soon coming to an end, Southside may leave you waxing nostalgic for that sense of hope and change that permeated the country eight years ago. Notably, if you set aside the famous names and everything we know about these two characters' futures, what’s left is a wonderfully crafted romance between a pair of African-American individuals, in a context rarely seen onscreen.
These are the sort of characters and conversations we simply don’t see enough of in the movies anymore, no matter their ethnicity. And, frankly, it makes Southside With You the unexpected gift that makes you ponder what Tanne, Sumpter, and Sawyer will do next.
As of this writing, Southside With You has not yet been acquired for US distribution.