Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in Southside With You
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A fictionalization of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, Southside With You is a film that straddles several lines. It’s part biopic, part romance, part fan fiction, and it mostly navigates those boundaries with ease, though there’s such a staged quality to it you can’t help but wonder if it would have been better off as a play. Starring Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama, Southside is a thoughtful recreation of the ultimate power couple’s first date. First time writer/director Richard Tanne saddles his actors with some heavy-handed foreshadowing, but Sumpter and Sawyers are so likeable and have such believable chemistry that they sell it anyway.
Most of the movie takes place over the course of one long day in which Barack halfway cons Michelle into going on a date with him, after she has resisted previous advances. Her reservations are logical—as the only black woman at her top-tier law firm, she’s worried about appearances and how an inter-office romance with her subordinate (she’s supervising Barack’s summer internship) could undermine her position. Sumpter perfectly captures Michelle’s anxiety without making her seem cold or overdramatic. If anything, Michelle is so contained and practical about the unbelievable pressure she faces that you get mad on her behalf.
In contrast, Sawyers portrays Barack as a charming, well-spoken flirt, confident and fully aware of the power of his smile. Making the leap from bit parts and video game voiceover, Sawyers not only bears a striking resemblance to the president but he also captures the swagger and effectively mimics his distinctive speech patterns. It’s a little more on the impression side of the acting scale, but Sawyers’ performance is convincing enough to get the job done.
There’s not much to Southside, plot-wise. Michelle preps for her not-a-date with Barack, who shows up late in a rust bucket with a hole in the floorboard. He misleads her by lying about the start time of the community event they’re going to, but charms her out of her ire by taking her to an art museum to look at the works of Ernie Barnes. They end up spending the day together, roaming across Chicago, from the Art Institute (as played by the Cultural Center), to a Southside church where Barack delivers a stirring speech, to the Baskin-Robbins where they share their first kiss. (There’s a commemorative plaque there now, and also, it’s a Subway.) By the end of the date, they’re not in love, but you can see they’ve realized that they could be.
There are moments in which Southside is deeply romantic, both about the Obamas and Chicago. Sumpter and Sawyers are so grounded as performers that they save it from becoming too heavy-handed, although the moment when Michelle suggests politics as a route open to Barack is a borderline groaner. Where the film really shines are in the looser moments when the two engage in verbal sparring—Barack comes off as witty and intelligent, and Michelle is not just his intellectual equal, but, as backed by Sumpter’s sharp-tongued delivery, is probably his superior. Southside is invested in the ideas that birth a president, but also in the notion that next to every great man there’s a great woman.
Southside is a two-hander walk-and-talk day-of romance, so the obvious touchstone is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, but I was more strongly reminded of Chris Evans’ movie, Before We Go. There’s a similar slightness to both movies, and like Evans, Tanne lacks Linklater’s visual acuity. But Southside benefits from its real-life subjects, since we know how this romance ends and the towering shadows of who Barack and Michelle become linger over every interaction they have. That means the drama stems not from “will they or won’t they”, but from comparing what we as the audience know of them against how the fictionalized Barack and Michelle see themselves and each other. It’s not the most compelling angle, but Sumpter and Sawyers sell the sh*t out of it. Southside With You is a lovely notion, a celebratory biography, and a slightly presumptuous memorial all wrapped up in a dreamy romantic date movie.
Attached – Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers at AOL Build last week promoting the film.