***1/2 out of ****
(for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference)
Released: August 26, 2016
Runtime: 84 minutes
Director: Richard Tanne
Starring: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Taylar Fondren, Preston Tate Jr., Vanessa Bell Calloway, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Jerod Haynes
Well that didn’t take long.
Presidential biopics of any form usually don’t start popping up until a few years after a final term has been served (and, more often than not, a generation or more), yet Southside With You hits theaters while Barack Obama still has five months left in office.
Given that total lack of distance, an initial gut impression can’t help but provoke an eyeroll, wondering if the Obama mythologizing has already begun – especially considering the premise: Southside With You is the “Obama First Date” movie. Could this be insufferably sycophantic Obama Fan Fiction?
Sure enough, there’s some Obama hagiography in full effect about halfway through. But on either side of that idealized community organizing is an authentically drawn portrait not only of a young Barack Obama and (eventual First Lady) Michelle Robinson but, more broadly, one of the least-polarized and (quite frankly) truly beautiful reflections on the African-American experience that’s been seen in quite some time.
Playing out over the course of a single 1989 summer day on the titular side of Chicago, Southside With You follows Barack and Michelle around on what (they would eventually agree) was their first date. Barack’s intentions are clear, but Michelle rebuffs the definition. She’s a young legal clerk trying to build a career at a firm that Barack is merely interning at between semesters at Harvard. For Michelle, any semblance of unprofessional impropriety could be damaging. But dang, that Barry is smooth.
Strolling through parks and art galleries, driving around local neighborhoods, and talking over drinks or after a movie (which just happens to be, appropriately enough, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing), Barack and Michelle get to know each other as they leisurely share the day. It’s an effective construct (and effectively done) right out of the Richard Linklater playbook; it’d be tempting to nickname this Before 44 in homage to Linklater’s Before Trilogy and Obama’s numerical slot in the Presidential succession.
Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter (she also produced the film) completely immerse themselves, respectively, into the roles of Barack and Michelle. Impressively natural and spontaneous at virtually every turn (Sawyers especially, whose casual affectation of Barack’s persona is entirely authentic), Sumpter and Sawyers go way beyond caricature to something that’s personally felt, and portrayed.
Their conversations are very well-written, too, particularly given how they never self-consciously project what the future will eventually hold. Yes these two are ambitious, even dreamers, but geared specifically toward hopes of impacting their community, not transforming a nation or ruling the free world. And as they share their thoughts on life, topical issues, and societal concerns, the exchanges are organic, not didactic. It actually feels like a first date, not the start of inevitable history in the making.
In fact, the greatness that lies within Southside With You isn’t so much what it reveals about the Obamas but rather the talent of its first-time filmmaker. Making his feature debut, writer / director Richard Tanne (who’s Caucasian; not that it matters, but in case you were wondering) could’ve gotten by just fine with how well he dramatizes this date, which strikes a much deeper connection than the typical genre “meet cute”.
But as the two look at and listen to art of different kinds, or make their way through various boroughs, Tanne uses the opportunity to craft a thoughtful rumination on African-American culture. It’s both a celebration and elegy of that history and experience, of how it’s been expressed and captured, and is sensitively observed on both counts (something that’s even carried through the end credits).
This gives Southside With You surprising layers that never require a soapbox, makes the film much richer than it needs to be, and elevates it beyond a mere biopic. The focus, too, is on the African-American community’s simple but hard-earned virtues, ones that have challenged and strengthened the fabric of America itself. The intentionality of these themes portends Tanne not only as a director to watch but an actual artist in his own right.
The world could’ve waited for a film about the Obamas, even a good one like this. But given how it’s ultimately not about the Obamas but rather the culture that forged them, Southside With You couldn’t have come along at a better time.