“The liberal-minded people will think it’s precious and the closed-minded people will think it’s pathetic.”
The saying typically goes that behind every great man is a great woman. That’s not the case in Southside with You, a casual and disarming depiction of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in the summer of 1989. The title itself suggests a protagonist, a role which proves best suited for Michelle, not behind the man but rather ten steps ahead of him all along. Granted, a movie about our President and the FLOTUS will be divisive among crowds of the far leaning political sector, so let me say that the film has no political aspirations. Change is addressed but policy issues aren’t. It’s a date movie through and through, showing two smart and hardworking young adults spending a day challenging each other and eventually falling in love. Southside with You mimics that first encounter; it’s awkward and plodding to start but finds its footing late, even if by then the night’s nearly over.
Upstart lawyer Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) agrees to attend a city meeting with summer associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). Strictly work-related on Michelle’s end; entirely date driven on Barack’s. She’s precise and timely while he drags a cigarette and reads, taking the time to answer a phone call from Granny and assure her that he won’t be late. He is, a fact Michelle immediately points out. This fiercely poised woman is also upset to learn that Barack fudged the event’s start, making sure to allow for time at an art museum, lunch, a walk in the park. Michelle resists because of work related stigmas; Barack pursues because, from what can be gathered, he sees a woman who can make him a better man. The film may begin from Michelle’s perspective, but then vacillates back and forth so as not to be strictly prohibited. We see from both sides.
Southside with You has charm and personality, hampered by issues because of the shooting style being so tied down by its biographical bend. You’ll read many critics likening the film to Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. A lot of walking and talking with stops sprinkled in here and there. Yet that formula simply doesn’t bode well for Richard Tanne’s film. In Linklater’s, the performers are collaborators in the truest sense of the word, improvising dialogue and creating the characters as they go along. In the Obama meet-cute, the two leads – both tremendous in spurts – aren’t afforded the same opportunity. We know where the story ultimately goes, so in turn the dialogue feels forced and stilted, maybe even a little too predictably contrived. Tanne may not have written a great movie but he has directed a very good one. Note the silences and the stares between these two. When allowed to do very little by voice, Sumpter and Sawyers do absolute wonders through nuanced action.
Southside with You has a lot of interest in culture. They come across ceremonial African music, Barack talks to his fellow brethren about getting a community center, finish the night by seeing a screening of Do the Right Thing. I was most impressed by their first venture into the world of Afro-Centric art. Mr. Obama knows a thing or two about the pieces – maybe to impress Michelle, but with personal insight as well – and the paintings reflect the landscape of the entire film by channeling the work of Ernie Barnes. A number of stills could be freeze-framed and hung on a wall, beautifully lit by DP Patrick Scola and staged by Tanne, with many of the shots finding Barack beneath and looking up at this strong and bright woman. Southside with You features two noteworthy performances and is a palatable piece of embellished non-fiction. There just isn’t enough candid and spontaneous substance to the way the film communicates its humanism. The effort is still appreciated.
“I just wanna do more.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5