When a political figure segues out of office, his life becomes fodder for pop mythology. When George W. Bush left office, he was the subject of (or subjected to) an Oliver Stone biopic about his youth as a hapless, reluctant scion of a wealthy political dynasty.
The Obamas are still in office, but they’ve already inspired Southside With You. Writer-director Richard Tanne’s valentine to the first couple is a charming sort of “origin story” that befits their rock star/superhero status, detailing the events and conversation that transpired on the first day they spent together. The talk is interesting, the revelation of character subtly done, and the potential for romance undeniable in this thoughtful, witty movie that might as well be subtitled My First Date With Barack.
Actually, a “date” is what young Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), second-year attorney at a Chicago law firm, insists she is not going on, this summer day in 1989. As she assures her parents (with whom she still lives in their Southside home), she’s merely going to a community organizing meeting with a work colleague, young law associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), who’s recently joined the firm. She laughs it off when her mom (Vanessa Bell Calloway) reminds her that she once described Obama as another “smooth-talking brother.”
Nevertheless, Michelle gets reasonably dolled-up for the outing. As a woman—especially a woman of color—in a predominantly white and male law firm, she understands the importance of looking professional at all times. Barack, on the other hand, is seen lounging around in his undershirt, reading and smoking cigarettes, until the last possible minute, when he pops on a shirt, and hops into his battered Nissan Sentra to pick up Michelle.
There’s a hole in the floor on the passenger side through which she can see the road racing by, and cigarette butts in the ashtray. To Michelle’s further dismay, Barack suggests starting their day at an African-American art exhibit. Protesting that they are not on a “date,” she agrees to go along, and is impressed, not only by the work, but by Barack’s knowledge of the artists. (Like Ernie Banks, the unsung painter who provided the artwork supposedly done by the JJ character in the TV sitcom Good Times.)
At the meeting in a neighborhood church, the residents praise Barack’s ability to “get things done.” They go out for a bite and a beer, catch Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, and end up at a Baskin-Robbins. And through it all, they talk, gently needling opinions and revelations out of each other, as people do when they’re interested in getting to know somebody better.
These conversations evolve naturally, in bits and pieces, as the story progresses. Barack is still coming to terms with his identity: his father is a black man from Kenya who dropped out of Harvard; his mother is a white Midwesterner, and he was born in Hawaii and raised by his white grandmother (after spending some time as a child in Jakarta, Indonesia, with his mom and new stepfather). Michelle’s parents insisted on education for their two kids, yet Michelle finds that, as a young woman of color, she has to work twice as hard at her job to earn her colleagues’ respect.
She advises Barack to let go of his anger at his father. He intuits her frustration at working on trademark copyright cases when she really wants to be working for justice for the people. The better they understand each other, the more they both realize that this relationship might be going somewhere.
Of course, we know exactly where it’s going. And if you think that’s a good thing, you’ll appreciate the warmth and good humor with which this story is delivered. (When Michelle is surprised to hear that they had Baskin-Robbins franchises in Hawaii, Barack has to gently remind her that Hawaii is part of the United States.) Sumpter and Sawyers persuasively inhabit their roles (even playing such familiar characters), and their abstract gazes, alone in their separate homes at evening’s end, will resonate with anyone who has ever suddenly been in love.
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU
***(out of four)
With Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. Written and directed by Richard Tanne. A Miramax/Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG-13. 81 minutes.