Southside With You Tells the Story of When Barry Met Michelle

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as the future First Lady and President of the U.S.
Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as the future First Lady and President of the U.S. Pat Scola, Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions

Southside With You

Written and directed by Richard Tanne. Starring Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers and Vanessa Bell Calloway. Opens August 26 at multiple theaters.

One summer day in 1989, a young Chicago attorney spent a long day with one of her firm's temporary associates. They visited an art museum, attended a community organization meeting and saw Spike Lee's just-released Do the Right Thing. The slim new film Southside With You is based on the events of that day (or date — the two characters disagree several times on how to categorize it). It rests on a gimmick which they waste no time in revealing. The woman is Michelle Robinson, and her companion is Barack Obama, just shy of 28 years. We all know the ending to the story: They married thirteen years later and remain a couple, arguably one of the world's most admired, to this day.

Southside With You, the feature debut of writer-director Richard Tanne, is an odd hybrid of a film, one that is simultaneously modest and ambitious. It is, first and foremost, a would-be idyll in which two attractive, likable people chat and get to know each other, with familiar Chicago locations providing the background. They talk about many things — their families, their career goals, the TV series Good Times and the comparative claims of Innervisions and Talking Book for Stevie Wonder's best album. (At this point, one must weigh in to object to an obvious inaccuracy: Have neither of them heard Songs in the Key of Life?) But for all their talk, the dialogue remains almost deliberately insubstantial, functioning more as cultural and historical markers for the viewer than as real conversation. Though it clocks in at a mere 84 minutes, the film feels like a short has been unnecessarily expanded to three times its proper size.

Much of the effectiveness of the film rests on the amiable performances of Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as, respectively, Michelle and Barack, but this too is a mixed blessing. On one hand, we are to believe that we are watching two (relatively) young people sizing each other up as potential partners, expressing their feelings and carefully revealing themselves. But we're also supposed to see in them the mannerisms and phrasings of the Obamas as we know them today, to recognize what are essentially their public personae. There are moments where the actors seem to become self-consciously aware of their real-life counterparts and come dangerously close to the line between acting and the kind of imitation one might see in a Saturday Night Live sketch.

The centerpiece of the film is a neighborhood meeting in which Obama speaks, steering a crowd from unfocused anger to collective action as they discuss plans to petition the city for a community center. It's a crucial moment for both the film and the couple: Dramatically, it's the point at which Michelle sees through her date's cool exterior and recognizes his political acumen; it's also where we see Sawyers at his most assuredly Obama-like, working the audience and winning them over to his brand of practical problem-solving. But it's hampered by stereotypical dialogue and a sense that the filmmakers have contrived a purely generic cause that allows the film to look political without actually offering any real sense of politics. It's a safe, structured scene that ultimately places appearances over meaning.

So while Southside With You is an affectionate and respectful tribute to our 44th President and his admirable wife, they deserve a more insightful one. Sumpter, who also produced the film, has described Southside With You as Obama's "origin story," reducing the narrative to one of the more tiresome conventions of comic book films, and perhaps that's one of its problems. Once you look over a few of its more cliched aspects — Obama's chain-smoking and his resentment of his African father — it doesn't have much to say about the real Obamas, who they are or how they got that way. Super heroes are relatively easy to explain — we all understand that a radioactive spider bite is going to be a life-changing event for Peter Parker — but the real world is rarely so convenient or so simple.

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