Obama Romance Brought To Life In Enchanting "Southside With You"

Late summer, 1989. A young Barack Obama tools around Chicago in a crummy, yellow Nissan Sentra, puffing away on a cigarette, jamming to Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much.” The Sidley Austin law firm associate is on his way to pick up his advisor, Michelle Robinson. In his mind, it’s a date. In hers, it is absolutely not a date, merely a concession to a lovelorn 28-year-old who won’t stop asking her out. His late arrival to her parents’ house is as unceremonious as unceremonious gets, at once a stark and gentle reminder that before presidential motorcades come shitty hatchbacks with rusted-out floorboards.

From the get-go, it’s clear that Barack is winging this thing. That neither party knows what the evening will bring; that first they’ll take in an Afrocentric art exhibit, then a showing of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” then become the world’s most powerful couple.

But Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” – maybe the world’s first presidential date movie – knows better than to make that leap. In this, his feature length debut, the writer-director contentedly sticks to one summer night in 1989, when Barack and Michelle were just two people trying to figure themselves – and each other – out. The result is a tremendous walk-and-talk romance that would work just fine devoid of context. But it’s that context that puts it over the top – into “best of the year” territory.

Tanne’s warm, insightful screenplay and evocative direction are stars here in their own rights. There’s a sense of time and place fuller than that of most period pieces, let alone modestly budgeted indies. But the film wouldn’t be nearly the champ it is without its two leads.

Newcomer Parker Sawyers does more than star as the future President. He supernovas, marrying Barack’s distinct physicality to an appropriately youthful, incomplete version of the easy charisma he would grow into. The actor is a ringer for the part, a borderline miracle, expertly toeing the line between impression and interpretation to the point that we’re not always sure we aren’t watching archival footage that we know couldn’t possibly exist. Especially when photographed in profile or low lighting. He is Barack Obama.

Tika Sumpter (“Ride Along”) holds her own as Michelle, less natural but every bit as impactful. No matter how true to life, Michelle’s staunch aversion to dating an underling might have come off as rom-com cliché. But as scripted and acted, she comes off every bit her companion’s equal, making her reticence to date the lanky Harvard Law student ring true. Moreover, Tanne and Sumpter do an impeccable job in weaving Michelle’s past and future with that of Barack’s, thoughtfully and almost never sycophantically – save for one scene.

The picture’s centerpiece – Barack speaking at a community meeting, with Michelle visibly, justifiably moved – is where the movie takes its great artistic license and sidles up to hagiography. By all accounts, this meeting did not happen on the Obamas’ first date, and it’s too obvious a lunge at the future President’s renowned speaking skills. But it’s so skillfully written, so agreeably delivered that to protest would be to nitpick, especially when everything that follows feeds off it so beautifully.

From there, the duo shuffles off to an intimate dinner where they trade stories of their upbringings, and then a showing of what might be the best film of the 1980s – one whose themes might be even more resonant in 2016 than 1989. Tanne uses the opportunity to deliver, via Barack, a more concise summation of “Do The Right Thing” than any film professor ever has, which brings us, finally, to a stunningly unremarkable but nevertheless sweet first kiss.

Tanne juggles romance, historical documentation, and political docudrama so well herein that it’s worth a second mention that this is his first film. Yes, the dialogue is mostly made up, but these blanks have been filled in marvelously, postulating about a relatively low-key day in the life that turned out to be monumental. And even though most of us will never lead the free world, this kind of butterfly effect romance is deeply relatable, all the same. And wonderfully entertaining.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: August 26, 2016
Studio: Miramax, Roadside Attractions
Director: Richard Tanne
Screenwriter: Richard Tanne
Starring: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference)