Affectionately referred to by some here in Park City as the “black Before Sunrise”, Richard Tanne’s sweet and charming “Southside with You” is an extended meet-cute with a gigantic twist. The woman, Michelle (Tika Sumpter), is a Princeton and Harvard-educated lawyer living in south Chicago with her parents. She’s getting ready to meet a colleague (Parker Sawyers), a Harvard law student who has been chasing her for a date for some time. She insists this isn’t a date, and certainly the particulars of it don’t sound like one as they are attending a meeting of community organizers. The young man pulls up in his broken down old car, puts out the cigarette he’s been puffing on, and goes to meet her at her door. His name is Barack Obama. Hers is Michelle Robinson, and this is the story of how they fell in love.
It’s an intriguing premise, one rife with pitfalls, but Tanne quickly lays out what this film is going to be. It won’t be a glowing, personified glimpse at the future President of the United States and his First Lady. Warts and all, we’re introduced to the two most famous and powerful people in the country at a time when they were beginning to realize the possibilities that lay ahead for them, and the difficult road if they’e to get where they want to go. That includes issues of race and gender, but also the responsibility of minorities in power to help those less unfortunate.
So while the ‘Before’ movies are indeed an inspiration, the film touches on issues that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy never had to contend with. For Michelle, there’s a pretty good reason why she refuses to date her colleague. As a woman, a black woman at that, dating the only other eligible black man in the office would undermine her credibility. That said, Barack’s pretty persistent, and isn’t afraid to fudge the truth a little to spend time with her. He tells her the meeting isn’t until much later in the day, news to her, so they explore the history and culture of Chicago. Tanne effortlessly clues us in to their mutual intelligence and respect for the past during a discussion of African-American artist (and ex-football star) Ernie Barnes, who painted most the artwork for the TV show “Good Times”.
Their conversations stretch a number of topics, covering religion, politics, feminism, and most importantly Barack’s relationship to his parents. In particular Barack’s thoughts on his Kenyan father, who abandoned him and his mother at an early age, or explored with reasonable amounts of depth. As Michelle later points out, Barack is “still fighting him” even though he’s gone and has been for years. He’s not a fan of her judgment towards him, and conversely Michelle doesn’t like being judged by Barack. The two are often at odds, arguing about their place in a world run largely by white men. But there’s also a lot of gentle ribbing that goes on, like when Michelle makes fun of his Dumbo ears or his lack of experience dating black women.
While some of the dialgoue is a little on-the-nose, the film does a good job of laying the groundwork for who Barack and Michelle are today. Even back then he was a man firmly committed to working from the ground up within the community to affect change. As Barack, Parker Sawyers captures his good-natured charm and easy charisma, while staying clear of simple impersonation. His best moment comes during the meeting when his soaring speech about finding common ground lifts the spirits of everyone hearing his words. But he’s not perfect; this isn’t Barack the finished product, and watching him take a step on his future journey is fascinating. The same goes for Michelle, whose personal strength is evident right from the start, although she’s still suspectible to the “slick brotha” who is nice enough to buy her ice cream. And yes, the two do end their date with a showing of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”, just as in real life.
It’s fascinating that a movie like this even exists. We just don’t see this kind of thing here in America, but there’s also never been a couple in the White House like Barack and Michelle Obama. Who knows if we’ll ever see another film about a sitting President and First Lady’s courtship, but “Southside with You” makes a pretty compelling case that maybe we should. Now if only someone could get the Obamas to give their own critique of it?