“It’s not a date…until you say it is.”
A young black couple go on date in Chicago. They talk, they get to know each other, they struggle to define just whether or not they’re even on a date, they go to the movies and see Do The Right Thing. It’s all very cute, and sweet, and funny. And it’s also historic. Because this couple is Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), the future President and First Lady of the United States.
Richard Tanne’s romantic Southside with You follows the Obamas on their first date, languidly unfolding over one summer day in Chicago with an easy-going grace and deftness for character development. There’s an undeniable curiosity to the very concept of the film, but Tanne’s script doesn’t make attempts at hagiography, nor does it lay on a thick political message. Instead, his film paints a human, down-to-earth portrait of two smart young people on the verge of greatness, while also on the verge of falling for each other.
Barack and Michelle walk, and talk, and the film conjures up memories of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy. And while this is a story about future political figures, it’s not the story about them. This isn’t a biopic like Oliver Stone’s Nixon or W.; rather, it’s approach is similar to John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln — a fictionalized moment in the life of a historic figure (or in this case, figures). That’s not to say Southside With You is spun entirely from whole cloth — many of the beats the film hits are based on the real first date of the First Couple. But Tanne’s script doesn’t rely rigidly on what happened; rather, it lets what happened dictate a rhythm and flow that may not be 100% historically accurate but sure feels genuine.
Sawyers and Sumpter are both charming and magnificent in their respective roles. The actors don’t attempt to mimic the historic figures they’re playing, but rather to capture their essence. Sawyers’ Barack is smooth-talking when he needs to be, frequently chain-smoking and playfully ribbing. But there’s an earnestness there, along with a noble — and possibly foolish — belief that deep down, all people are genuinely good and can be convinced to make the right choice if you can get them to listen. Sumpter’s Michelle is composed and professional, not easily won-over by Barack’s charms. They’re colleagues — in fact, she’s his supervisor at a law firm, and as a result she views the concept of becoming romantically involved with him as an impossibility. Barack is well aware of this, so he essentially tricks her into going on a date with him. They’re supposedly going to a community meeting, but Barack picks Michelle up hours before the meeting even begins, and proceeds to take her to a museum, attempt to buy her lunch and more or less convince her to give him a chance.
In the process, they learn more about each other. Michelle reveals how her father instilled in her an always-moving work ethic, and she also drops the occasional hint that she’s not very happy with her current job. Barack, for his part, not-so-subtly hints at his resentment for his deceased father. He sees his father’s life as “unfinished” — something underscored by the fact that his father’s tombstone is blank, because no one could afford to have words chiseled into it. “You’ll do it,” Michelle tells him after a beat. “One day, when you have enough money, you’ll go and have his name chiseled on the stone.” A slight smile on his face, Barack asks her how she can know such a thing. Michelle replies that she doesn’t know it’ll happen for a fact, but she’s a firm believer in hope.
Southside with You is filled with simple, effective moments like this. It’s so refreshing to see a movie that is content to sit back and let its characters just be. That’s not to say it’s entirely effective. There are occasional moments where the script feels like it’s jumping through hoops to make connections to historical events the audience will be familiar with. Yet somehow, it works. Even the occasional unbelievable touch of dialogue works thanks to the performances of Sawyers and Sumpter. As the day turns to night, the pair wind up at a bar where Michelle gives an impassioned speech claiming that Barack needs to learn to forgive his father. There’s nothing wrong with this dialogue, per say — in fact, it’s quite moving. It just seems highly implausible that anyone would say such a thing on a first date. But it doesn’t matter, because the way Sumpter softly stresses her point as Michelle, and the way Sawyer looks considerate but also very sad as he listens as Barack, all while Tanne pushes the camera slowly in on his face, makes the scene sing.
A dramatic film about a sitting President is a rarity, but not entirely unprecedented, as the previously mentioned W. proves. And while there are hints of the part politics will play in the lives of these two people, Southside with You is more interested in the people themselves. It’s a film that wonderfully conjures up a hot, but enjoyable, summer day — the sun warming-up sidewalks, the air humid, the world awake and alive. Barack and Michelle grow closer, and we want them to grow closer — not because we know their real-life counterparts do, but because the film makes us genuinely care about these two people. The film builds, ebbs and flows. And it culminates in one of the best-staged on-screen kisses in recent memory. It’s a nice little bit of relief after an otherwise dreadful summer movie season.