Two Stellar Leads Make ‘Southside With You’ A Pleasant Little Date With History

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Having been in the public eye for over decade now, it can be hard to think of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as just regular people meeting on a first date on a summer afternoon in Chicago. But that fateful meeting between the two was the source of inspiration for writer-director Richard Tanne’s Southside With You, which is a fictionalized imagining of the first date between Barack and Michelle. It’s been said many times before that 90% of directing is casting, and the stellar lead performances save Southside With You from some heavy-handed dialogue that seem to lift more lines from speeches by the Obamas than Melania Trump.

When we first see Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) she’s getting ready to go out with a young man named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). The two work together at a Chicago law firm, and Michelle is his superior. Though the young and brash Barack has his eyes set on Michelle, the young woman is adamant that their day together is certainly not a date. Before taking Michelle to a community meeting, Barack takes his non-date to an art museum. Later, they have sandwiches in the park and discuss their family, future, and careers. Their night culminates with a round of drinks before attending a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. After an entire afternoon and evening together, the two form a bond that will documented in countless history books over the course of American history.

The performances and chemistry between Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers is the saving grace of Southside With You. Sawyers does an excellent job in capturing the cadence that Barack Obama uses, and it especially shows in the lone scene at the community center when the future president gives an inspirational speech. Conversely, Tika Sumpter plays Michelle as a driven woman that lives with a lingering question as to whether she’s achieving her lofty goals in life by working for the prestigious law firm. But it’s really the little moments between the two that come across with the most potency, like the way Sumpter wordlessly conveys Michelle’s adamance in paying for her own lunch. Parker Sawyers gets his own little moments through Barack’s cigarette smoking, the actor consistently playing coy with his habit. Southside With You showcases two emerging talents, and their excellence is confirmed by the fact that movie wouldn’t be very good without their immense talents.

Southside With You is leans so heavily on its leads because the script from Richard Tanne lacks subtlety. Barack and Michelle talk over a number of deeply personal issues on their first date, and explain their inner thoughts as if their remarks were prepared for a televised speech. This tendency is at its most egregious when a young Barack Obama is giving his rousing speech at the community meeting. It presents him as someone who has always had this magical ability to inspire with words; this young Barack Obama isn’t a rough draft of the future president, merely someone younger. To Tanne’s credit, every time there’s a groan inducing nod towards the future with heavy-handed dialogue, there are those smaller moment between the two that are touching and comedic. When it’s obvious, Southside With You stops just short of having Barack proclaim, “Yes we can!”

Tanne’s direction and the cinematography Patrick Scola do an excellent job of recreating the cityscape of 1989 on a budget. The direction is never really flashy, but there are a number of exquisite compositions that serve the situations of the characters. There’s a pleasant texture to the visuals of Southside With You, a soft visual style that compliments the two stellar leads.

A minor stroll on a summer’s day, Southside With You is the Tika Sumpter and Parker Pawyers show. It’s not that I believed either one of them in their roles because they were able to capture the measured tone of their subject’s public speaking. It’s not that they matched their vocal inflection or big smiles. It’s that I believed the chemistry between the two. Even when the dialogue devolves into the platitudes of foreshadowing, it’s the two stars that keep things feeling natural. In its lone similarity to major blockbusters, the biggest problem with Richard Tanne’s movie is it consistently keeps winking at the future. When Southside With You is focused on its present, it’s nothing but a charming, touching movie. We already know where Barack and Michelle wind up. Make us care about how they got there. Southside With You only does that some of the time, but when it does there’s magic in the air.

Southside With You
  • Overall Score


Writer-director Richard Tanne’s fictionalized version of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, Southside With You, features some heavy-handed dialogue that winks at their future, but the film is saved by the two stellar leading performances from Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers.

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