“Politics? Maybe,” so shrugs a young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) in Richard Tanne’s “Southside with You.” At the moment, he’s got more important things to focus on – namely, his companion, Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and whether they’re on a date or not. Tanne’s film follows the first date of the future first couple, “Before Sunrise” style. It’s a little bit about politics, but mostly just about these two remarkable people, their life stories and what they want to do in the world, which at this time is simply “more.”
As the American public has come to realize, Michelle is a star, and Sumpter plays her with both radiant grace and a determined tone in her voice, which is clipped, low and forceful. She keeps Barack on his toes from minute one, and you can imagine she still does. She instantly and repeatedly asserts that their afternoon together is not a date until she says it’s a date, seeing as she’s his supervisor at the law firm where he’s interning as a summer associate.
Sawyers bears more than a passing resemblance to the current commander-in-chief, especially in profile, but he avoids doing an impersonation more suited for late-night comedy. Hints of Obama’s cadence come out in Sawyer’s speaking, but he portrays the young law student as a rakish, swaggering work-in-progress, puffing on cigarettes, driving a beat-up Datsun with a rusted out floor, struggling to reconcile his conflicted feelings about his father with the ambitions he holds for himself. This is not the Barack Obama we know now as our president, but the young man he once was, still learning and growing, but with his values firmly in place.
Their banter and repartee isn’t just about their hopes and dreams and light fluffy romance, but about the way that they challenge each other, in a caring way, to interrogate themselves and their patterns of thinking. Michelle is a worker and a fighter, and she always stands up for herself, quick to point out injustice and judgments. She exudes a strong sense of self, shored up by her own determination and backbone, and she’s a formidable presence. Barack goes toe-to-toe with the stronger, more mature woman, testing her, but he’s more of a philosopher, willing to debate for the sake of debate, observing and logically drawing conclusions.
“Southside with You” is an exceedingly pleasant film, from the 1989 radio hits to the sunny Chicago setting, as the attractive pair drifts from the Art Institute to a community meeting at organizer Barack’s old haunt, to drinks and a showing of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.”
But it’s never escapist, always rooted in the realities of their life in Chicago, and their individual experiences in the world. One wouldn’t quite say this date movie is political, but this deeply personal portrayal of the President and First Lady is inherently political – asserting their humanity and the specific life experiences that brought them to the White House.
Their lively debate inevitably makes for a few tough moments, but it’s clear that they are learning about themselves as much as each other. It’s as if they are setting, and then meeting, a standard they possibly didn’t know existed, with each challenge. It’s a demonstration of the ultimate goal for a mutually respectful partnership: They simply make each other better.
Southside with You
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
Director: Richard Tanne
Length: 84 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference)
Chapel Hill: Chelsea, Silverspot. Durham: Carolina, Southpoint. Garner: White Oak. Raleigh: Grande, North Hills, Wakefield.