Mark Reviews Movies

Southside with You


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Richard Tanne

Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Deanna Reed Foster, TayLar, Donn Carl Harper

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference)

Running Time: 1:24

Release Date: 8/26/16 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 25, 2016

He wants the outing to be a date, because he finds this woman attractive on multiple levels. She repeatedly insists that it isn't a date, for a myriad of rational reasons involving her career.

Even before they meet for the first time, there are a few things we know about the two people at the center of Southside with You. We know that, in a little more than three years after this particular get-together, these two will get married. Their marriage will continue—and still does—for more than two decades, and that marriage will lead to two daughters. Together, this couple will achieve tremendous things throughout their respective careers, until there comes a point that each of them, their marriage, and their family will arrive on a national and international stage. The relationship will survive that, and it also will become something of an exemplar of a solid marriage.

Of course, he would become the President of the United States, and she would become the First Lady. That's what makes this story—of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson's first date—important on its surface. Perhaps the most surprising, significant element of writer/director Richard Tanne's film is that it is engrossing beyond and apart from that superficial level of "importance."

Yes, it's amusing to see how Tanne weaves in aspects of the Obamas' eventual political and personal aspirations throughout the film—foreshadowing his oratory prowess, his general political view, and his struggle to come to terms with the role of an absentee father in his life's story, as well as suggesting her eventual focus on health issues throughout her career and, especially, as the First Lady. This story, though, is self-contained.

The awareness of the future for these two most certainly heightens the story's effect, but whittled down to its core, this is a film about two compassionate, intelligent people who are defined by their respective pasts, slightly insecure about their respective places in the world at this given moment, and uncertain about their respective futures. Over the course of a day-long excursion across Chicago and mainly the great city's South Side on a perfect summer day in 1989, they talk.

Tanne, making his feature film debut, must have felt tremendous pressure in dramatizing the earliest stage of the romantic relationship between a sitting President and First Lady. If he did, none of that weight shows here. The easy path, obviously, would be to create some kind of hagiography about the two. It would be to craft a movie that treats this not-a-date-that-becomes-one as a sort of origin story—a movie that constantly would extol the virtues of these people as they were, as they are, and as they always will be.

Instead, Tanne approaches these characters as people who are unrepresentative of anything or anyone other than themselves—in this moment and at this point in their lives. Barack (Parker Sawyers) is a perpetually late bookworm who sits around his South Side apartment smoking and reading Toni Morrison (Appropriately enough, the book is Song of Solomon). Meanwhile, Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is spending a lot of time getting ready for something that she tells her family isn't a date.

Barack has invited Michelle to join him a local meeting about a planned community center that the city council has rejected. The meeting doesn't take place for a few hours, so maybe, he suggests, they should take in an exhibition at a nearby art gallery. She re-iterates that this isn't a date, that she won't let it become a date, and that it would be inappropriate for her—an associate at a downtown law firm—to go out on a date with him—a summer associate, whom she's advising, at the same law firm. Jokingly, he points out that she refers to him as "cute" at one point in her lengthy explanation.

Barack has heard her, though, and the rest of the film allows these two characters to hear each other over and over again. Tanne isn't merely interested in presenting lengthy monologues for these two to recite—speeches that reveal these characters' histories and present circumstances and dreams for the future, as well as their feelings about those issues. There's a genuine sense of back-and-forth, even when it's an apparently one-sided conversation: when Michelle talks about her father (played by Phillip Edward Van Lear), who suffers from multiple sclerosis but still works every day, or when Barack proffers his fears of becoming like his father, who left for Kenya when Barack was but a toddler.

The performances by Sumpter and Sawyers show themselves to be much more than adept acts of impersonation in scenes such as these. These are two people really listening to each other—taking in the information, relating it to a similar experience she or he has had, realizing that there's much more behind the external display of confidence that they both possess. On both sides of this connection, there's a curious and supportive picking apart of the shell that each character wears.

If we can reduce these wide-ranging conversations to a single overarching subject, it would be one of identity. Michelle talks about her experience of being a black woman in a professional setting that might tolerate one of those things but cannot deal with both. Barack explains what it was like as the child of a white mother and black father—the expectations, the prejudices, the long-standing feeling of not belonging.

The film's centerpiece scene features Barack addressing the frustrated people whose plans for the community center seemingly have been shattered. It's Tanne's most explicit instance of alluding to the future for the man, who rekindles the community's dream with a speech that hints at the brand of optimistic pragmatism—that there's hope as long as people understand the system that can produce change—that will bring him to the White House.

Within the context of the rest of Southside with You, though, the scene isn't mere foreshadowing. It serves as a display of yet another component of Barack, and it never loses sight of how Michelle reacts to the speech. The point is not what they will become but, as with the entirety of the film, the specific connection between these two people at this particular moment in time.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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