Review: 'Southside With You' Is An Earnest Love Letter To The Obamas, For Better And Worse
Come 2017, proud liberals will bid a tear-stained farewell to the wonderful First Family, the Obamas. While Barack Obama’s time in the Oval Office has been studded with misses, it’s been overwhelmingly stacked with successes and shining moments of diplomacy, compassion and humanity. His partner Michelle has become an inspiration to women and people of color with her warmth, intelligence, and grace under pressure. As Dustin has lamented before, they are this generation’s Kennedys. They are our Camelot renewed, and they will be missed no matter who comes out on top on election day. (Though especially if the Republican Babadook squeaks out a win.)
If you’re similarly dreading the final curtain call of the Obama Administration, Southside with You is here to soothe your separation anxiety. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Richard Tanne, this romantic drama imagines what Barack and Michelle’s first date on a sunny 1989 afternoon in Chicago was like. With a smile as sharp as her elocution, Tika Sumpter portrays the future First Lady, while Parker Sawyers plays the someday President with a casual cool, and confident stride.
Set over the course of one day, the regal pair stroll from an art exhibit to a picnic, community meeting to an ice cream shop, to a screening of Spike Lee’s rebellious Do The Right Thing. Theirs is the kind of glorious first date that’s never short on good conversation, and where hours slip by like minutes. Sumpter and Sawyers share a sparking chemistry, and each has enough charisma to believably settle into the roles of the beloved Obamas. But the film struggles in creating drama, making the central conflict Michelle and Barack bickering over whether this is in fact a date. See, he’s an intern at her law office, and he’s direct about his interest in her. She’s his adviser, and knows damn well that her reputation among the mostly male, all-white office will be compromised if she “starts dating the first cute black guy who walks through the firm’s doors.” She frankly states, “It would be tacky.” But Barack focuses on the positive, replying, “You think I’m cute?”
And this exchange is cute. But the will-they-won’t-they thread gets a bit tedious, as who the couple will become looms large over the film. Southside with You stumbles like so many could-be great biopics, by being overly reverential to its subjects. The film refuses to treat its characters as people, preferring precious prototypes of the Michelle and Barack we know. These upstanding twenty-somethings don’t bumble for the right thing to say or flounder in an off-the-cuff joke. They speak almost entirely in personal declarations, like “You know I like to look my best no matter where I go, or who I’m with,” and “Why are you wasting the fight inside you on battles you don’t care about?” Sure, it’s a cheap thrill when Tanne tips into glimpses of future greatness, like when Sawyers smoothly says with Barack’s signature grin, “Taken at face value, that’s a pretty existential question, Michelle.” But when that’s all the script offers, things get stale.
Tanne tries to create complexity folding in some minor flaws, leaning into Barack’s smoking habit and his resentment of his deadbeat dad, pushing hard into the could-be costs of Michelle’s tunnel-vision career goals. But considering what we know, Michelle’s repeated rejections of Barack’s easy charms don’t make her complex as much as confounding. After all, why would she rebuff such a handsome, smart, ambitious young man whose heart—like hers—is dedicated to helping the disenfranchised?
Despite its warm intentions, the filmmaking is amateurish at best. The writing offers a chaffing stiffness. Infuriatingly, the film’s cinematography fails its leads, whose faces are too often lost to improper exposure. During one pivotal scene in a bar, I nearly went mad, wanting to cry out for someone to bring a damn reflector, so we might clearly see Sawyer’s eyes as he delivered a poignant monologue. But alas, even in a movie about the most powerful black man on the planet, production fails its black cast.
While the execution is underwhelming, Sumpter and Sawyers shine nonetheless. And as we are in the midst of an absolute horror show of an election season, Southside with You can serve as a cathartic balm, as well as earnest love letter to the FLOTUS and POTUS who have meant the world to so many of us.
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