Writer-director Richard Tanne has opted to delve into the lives of some rather well-known people for his debut feature, it’s the first ‘date’ of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson in 1989. The result of this encounter in Southside with You is a stylishly composed and refreshingly original mini-biopic that steers far from cliché.
Given the history of romantically-orientated date movies, it would be easy to offer up another empty formulaic story. While many fail to go past surface level glances across a crowded bar to setup a lifetime, Southside with You is thankfully beyond your casual coupling movie, it’s a shrewd and intelligent look into the early relationship between two exceptional people.
Portraying Barack Obama is Parker Sawyers who has a definite resemblance to the current President and also displays the early steps towards that precise, thoughtful speaking manner we all know so well but this is still 1989 and so he’s a man still finding himself and his strengths. When you look at the real-life Obama, it’s his ordinary side and awareness of his own responsibilities that charm us and Sawyer achieves the essence of this. He brings forth that effortless charisma and humility but also reveals a depth of character as he’s happy to both offer an opinion and equally learn throughout the day with Michelle.
Not to understate Obama’s eventual strength but in the case of their first date, the flipside of his laid-back persona is the self-assured and strong-willed Michelle Robinson, played by the superb Tika Sumpter. She’s a young woman early in her career, fighting for her own place in a law firm and empowering women as much as can. She’s not domineering though, that would be misguided, because the personality Sumpter offers to the role is one you can only respect. We witness insights into her professional beliefs that initially hinder her opening up to Obama but in time, she’ll see the man beneath. The overall dynamic of their relationship is their ability to discuss, absorb and discover they’re compatible and equals.
Southside with You avoids all the usual pitfalls of this genre, almost to the point that you forget who our two leads will become. Their stories are insightful and open, focusing on that moment in their lives. Although conversations are ‘inspired by’ their date, we do know that they went to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and visited an art exhibition together and both situations play an important part in discovering who they’ll become and in the narrative. Tanner’s Southside with You is a smart and clever portrayal of the first moments of something bigger that features excellent performances from Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers.