‘Southside With You’ Review: A Sweet Retelling of the Obamas’ Meet-Cute
In the thick of the Chicago summer of 1989 two people went on a first date, marking the beginning of one of history’s most famous couples. It was Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. But the future First Lady, then 25-year-old lawyer Michelle Robinson, was insistent it was only a meeting between colleagues.
“Not a date, Mom,” Tika Sumpter’s Michelle says correctively to her mother as she applies her makeup in the opening scene of Southside With You. Writer-director Richard Tanne’s feature debut tells the story of the presidential couple’s first time together outside of their law firm offices. The story, which Tanne has said is 90 percent truth, is pretty close to the actual date as previously told by the Presidential couple in interviews. This being a movie though, there is some added dramatic tension, notably in a minor twist in the third act that feels too forced, and a deeper focus on movie Michelle’s concern over her colleague’s judgement.
In the film, a 27-year old Barack Obama, played by Parker Sawyers (a dear ringer for a young Obama) is a Harvard Law student working as a summer associate at a Chicago firm. Barack invites his mentor, Michelle, to a local community meeting, but after he picks her up in his beat-up yellow sedan she realizes he’s planned a whole day of activities, aka a “date.” There’s a museum trip, lunch, drinks, and a trip to the movies to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. But the two quickly get into their first of many disagreements when Michelle explains she’s not willing to risk her accomplishments by dating him. She explains in an impassioned monologue how much harder she’s had to work as a woman, and even harder as a black woman, to prove herself to her white male colleagues. The only two black people at an all-white firm dating? Tacky, according to Michelle. She also thinks Barack is just another smooth-talker trying to score a pretty woman.
As much as Southside With You is a story about the 44th President pursuing his wife, it’s also an infectiously sweet, lovely tale about two young people who bring out the best and most hidden sides of each other. As they wander through an art exhibit of Ernie Barnes paintings and eat sandwiches in the park, Michelle takes notice of Barack’s anger towards his father, while Barack calls her out for losing passion in her legal work. Tanne creates such distinct characters out of Barack and Michelle that if you were to change their names you’d still get a heartfelt story about the origins of romance. What’s great about Southside With You is that it doesn’t heavily rely on the real figures at its center or knowledge of their future accomplishments to tell its story. The film certainly pulls from and nods at that larger context, but feels like a glimpse at the budding romance between two people who happen to become the future POTUS and FLOTUS.
Southside With You’s greatest assets are its performances. Sumpter, who also produces, is a gripping presence as Michelle, radiating confidence and composure in everything from her clear enunciation to her directed glances. Sumpter is given a few lengthy monologues, and while the writing at times feels a little too dense for the light walk-and-talk mood of the film, she delivers them with a natural air. Sawyers’ Obama is full of charisma and swagger, and he nicely straddles the line between endearing and cocky. In a scene at a community church the actor perfectly nailing the POTUS’ speaking patterns and mannerisms. He’s great as young Obama and I can’t wait to see what Sawyers does with his next dramatic roles.
Southside With You is charming and sweet, from the opening credit sequence set to Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” to Barack and Michelle’s first kiss outside Baskin Robins (which really happened). It’s a delight for anyone who enjoys patient love stories full personal conversations. If you’re a fan of the Obamas, it will make you even more fond of the famous couple.