I should probably start this review by saying that I’m a complete and unabashed supporter of President Barack Obama. He’s pretty much everything I want out of a president and whenever I see him at that presidential podium or in the oval office I get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. He’s almost certainly the most perfect president I’m likely to see in my lifetime and think that half the reason Hillary Clinton has had such a hard time in this election cycle is because Obama has set the bar unrealistically high for any successor and whatever shortcomings have emerged in his administration I generally tend to blame either on the opposition or on necessary compromises that needed to be made to appease the electorate he inherited. Frankly, I think anyone who’s disappointed by his presidency probably had unrealistic expectations given the current political climate. The thing is, making a movie about a living hero before he’s even left office is not easy. It’s the opposite of the problem Oliver Stone made the movie W. eight years ago and somehow had to humanize a person that any right-thinking person should have had nothing but contempt for in 2008. In making a similarly timed film about our current president indie director Richard Tanne has opted for a different approach, looking not at the Obama we know so much as the Obama “before he was famous” with his new film Southside With You.
Set one fateful day in the summer of 1989 in Chicago, Southside With You depicts the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama. The film begins with Obama (Parker Sawyers) driving to pick up Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) in the early afternoon. The two know each other from the law firm where Robinson is a 2nd year associate and Obama is a sort of summer intern as he’s in the middle of finishing his law school degree. Robinson believes that they’re on their way to attend a community organizer meeting, and they are, but Obama has arranged for them to begin their outing earlier so that the two can attend an African American art exhibit and get lunch together. Robinson is a bit uncomfortable with the outing because the two are co-workers and Obama is technically a subordinate. Obama persists though and while it isn’t love at first sight the two do grow closer together over the course of the day and, as we all know, they will only grow closer afterwards.
The sort of “one fateful day when a couple comes together” format of the movie of course harkens back to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise but there is the notable difference of this being a movie about a real relationship and real relationships don’t always start on the conveniently romantic note that the one in that movie began on. It’s clear from this movie that the Obamas’ courtship was not something that was destined to be and that it was something that developed slowly. What’s more, this is not the wise and mature Obama we know today so much as the younger Obama trying to find his place and you actually can sort of understand Michelle’s hesitance. You start to see some of the future leader of the free world showing through in the community meeting mid-film and from some of the stories of what Obama had accomplished as an organizer earlier in life, but as a prospective boyfriend this younger chainsmoking Obama actually comes off as a bit of a creeper at times with the way he kind of tricked Michelle into going on this date and his persistence throughout. I guess you could say that he takes “no” as an invitation to “carry on,” which is a concept that would be a lot more objectionable outside of the relatively limited scenario presented here.
I feel like the bigger problem here though is just its kind of middling execution. One thing that becomes glaringly clear early on is that Tika Sumpter looks and sounds a lot more like the real Michelle Obama than Parker Sawyers looks and sounds like Barack Obama. Now I’ll grant you, being able to convince you that you’re in the skin of someone who’s been on TV every day for the last eight years is probably not easy and obviously I don’t expect the filmmakers to be able to find a qualified actor who looks exactly like a young version of the president but I still think they could have found a way to make it work better especially when the film’s co-star seems to be pulling it off just fine. Beyond that, I’m just not really sold on the film’s director Richard Tanne. The film’s visual sensibility seems pretty bland for the most part and Tanne seems to greatly over-estimate how interesting the south side of Chicago is to look at, especially the way he films is, because this is not one of those movies that successfully makes its location its character (which is especially unfortunate given the title). The whole movie just feels really Sundancey, and not like the kind of thing that would normally deserve to break out of that festival. I’m sure it felt like a breath of fresh are in that context next to all the Before Sunrise ripoffs about characters who don’t end up becoming leaders of the free world, but on it’s own, it feels kind of slight. It’s not awful or even bad, but people looking for insight into the Obamas are only going to get so much out of it and people looking for a date movie would probably be better served elsewhere.