In “Southside with You” director Richard Tanne spends 80 leisurely minutes recreating the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. It’s a quiet, romantic movie made up of the hopes and dreams of two young people who will one day be the most powerful couple in the world.
Set in Chicago in 1989, where the couple met when she was his advisor at a law firm, when the film begins she likes him but doesn’t like him. In fact she tries to set him up with one of her friends. Michelle, an ambitious second year associate at a tony law firm, doesn’t want to be known as the junior who “swooped down and dated the first cute black guy who walked through the door.” He gets her out on the pretence of inviting her to a community meeting at a church. Before the meeting they get to know one another on an informal date. “It’s not a date until you say it is,” he says to her. “I’m more inclined to describe this as a hostage situation,” she replies, fending off his charm offensive.
They walk through Southside Chicago, getting to know one another. Barack recites poetry and talks about Jimmy ‘Dyn-O-mite’ Walker’s artistic aspirations. At the community center he delivers a fiery speech about the importance of unity as Michelle repeatedly tells the church ladies she’s not Obama’s wife or girlfriend. Later they talk family history—her dad has MS, his dad went to Harvard, got kicked out and later died in a drunk driving accident—and bond over the love of Stevie Wonder. An encounter after a screening of “Do the Right Thing” almost ends their relationship before it has a chance to begin, but his persistence, charisma and some ice cream win her over.
“Southside with You” is a visit with people we already think we know but get to know a little bit better. It’s a conflict free slice of life, an easygoing stroll through the early moments of a relationship. The most obvious cinematic comparison would be Before Sunrise, the Richard Linklater film that observed the walking-and-talking first meeting of two fictional characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. The two films are connected, but “Southside with You” ups the ante by portraying two very famous people as the leads.
Fortunately Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, as Michelle and Barack respectively, don’t try and impersonate their famous counterparts. Instead the actors wisely choose to simply catch the essence and subtle mannerisms of the future president and first lady. A tribute to the performances is that we look at the characters as people and not caricatures of famous people. I suspect “Southside with You” would be just as effective if Michelle and Barack were Jane and Jim or any other couple. It’s a comfortable, intelligent look at the first sparks between two interesting people.