One of the most unexpected movie ideas of the year, Southside With You, writer-director Richard Tanne’s account of the 1989 first date between Barack Obama and future FLOTUS Michelle Robinson, turns out to be lovely to watch and absorb. I doubt the Obamas themselves would think this would make compelling summertime screen entertainment, but it is sweet stuff with lots of food for thought. As I say in my video review above, what makes it really hum are the exceptional dead-on performances of its leads Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter.
The format here is similar to what Richard Linklater did with the Before Sunset trilogy, where essentially we see Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walking around talking about their lives. That is what happens here as Michelle, who works in a Chicago law firm, heads out to a community meeting and is accompanied by one of the firm’s summer associates, Barack, who is working there while on a break from his studies at Harvard. He keeps trying to turn it into a date, but she is insistent the outing is strictly a professional thing, resisting his overtures at every turn even as they take detours to an art museum, eat ice cream, walk around the city, etc. She believes it would not look good to be involved in any way with someone from her workplace. Chain smoking and much more at ease, Barack is far more laid back about the whole situation.
There is an eye-opening and inspiring sequence once they get to that meeting, since as it turns out Barack used to be a community organizer in that very district and many of the attendees fawn all over him. He gets up and makes a great speech about lifting people up in their lives and you can see Michelle beginning to look at him in a different way, at least a little. Finally he convinces her to make this daylong outing an official “date,” and that means dinner and a movie — Spike Lee’s explosive Do The Right Thing. A chance encounter with one of the firm’s partners outside the theater sets her off again, telling Barack there can be no relationship between the pair. What follows is one of the most liltingly romantic scenes I have seen in awhile, and it also involves ice cream. In fact Southside With You offers some premium product placement for Baskin-Robbins, the kind of thing you just can’t buy.
It really is remarkable how Sumpter, who also serves as a producer, and Sawyers look like younger versions of the Obamas and also really get the cadence of their voices. But more importantly, they are completely believable in every way as this future First Couple. Tanne has taken an unlikely concept and made a sweet date movie that is one to remember. It’s a film even Fox News gadfly Sean Hannity could love; well, maybe not, but for everyone else I say “go.”
Producing with Sumpter and Tanne is Robert Teitel. Exec producers include Tracey Bing and John Legend, who contributes a beautiful song, “Start,” over the end credits that is worthy of an Oscar nomination. He reportedly was inspired to write it after seeing an early cut of the movie. Roadside Attractions and Miramax team up on the release, which was a hit at Sundance and opens Friday.
Do you plan to see Southside With You? Let us know what you think.