Directed by Richard Tanne. Starring Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Taylar Fondren
THE PLOT: In 1989, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) go on a date for the first time. Over the course of the day they spend together, they discuss, race, politics, art and ice cream, and begin to feel a connection growing.
THE VERDICT: ‘Southside With You’ is a strange sort of film. Chronicling the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama – or Robinson, as she was at the time – could be an interesting snapshot into the lives of African Americans in Chicago in the 1980s, but so much time is spent focusing on the fact that Barack smoked at the time, and Michelle’s objections that their meet up was not a date, that this dialogue-heavy film feels as though it is going nowhere.
Tika Sumpter is strong as Michelle Robinson; she makes the character tenacious and strong willed, and a character that the audience understands well. Parker Sawyers makes Barack a smooth talking young lawyer, who is already displaying his trademark charm, charisma and skill at orating. The trouble is that these two people, as President and First Lady of the United States of America, are so well known, their mannerisms and way of speaking so familiar to audiences around the world, that it is hard to tell whether Sumpter and Sawyers are giving strong performances or just imitating mannerisms seen on TV and social media.
Written and directed by Richard Tanne in his feature film debut, ‘Southside With You’ is a film that relies heavily on dialogue, and feels inspired in no small part by Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy, as these two characters talk their way through their first date together; not only discussing life as African Americans in a society suffering racial stress, but their dreams and aspirations for life. This is all well and good, but since we know where this story ends up, ‘Southside With You’ ends up feeling like a film that foreshadows everything and tells the audience nothing, even though most of the running time is taken up with talking.
As director, Richard Tanne makes sure that the couple keep moving through their day, from lunch to an art exhibition to a community event that Barack speaks at, but this does not help to give the film a feeling of pace, and it often drags its heels. As well as this, even though Barack makes a point about ‘Good Times’ showing stereotypical African American families, the two spend a lot of time having conversations about race and aspirations that feel as though we have heard them before. The characterisations are good, but again, it is hard to tell whether these performances are imitation or acting.
In all, ‘Southside With You’ feels like a new version of ‘Before Sunrise’, starring two of the most well known people in Western politics today. It is hard to know who the film is aimed at, and there is a feeling that it was made either too late or too soon. There are some interesting issues raised about race, wealth and education throughout the film, but the discussions around these end up feeling familiar and vague.
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    With just a few months left in Barack Obama’s presidency, hopefully to be succeeded by not-Trump, it’s not hard to imagine movies being made about him in the near future. Movies about what he stood for and represented, rather what he actually achieved. Southside With You rewinds the clock back to a summer’s day in 1989 and the beginning of the power couple that would pave a historic path to the White House 19 years later.

    Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is a young Chicago woman who still lives with her family, but has succeeded in business by running her own law practice. Summer associate Barack (Parker Sawyers) has caught her eye in the office, but she keeps her distance. He’s a Harvard Law graduate with dreams of making a difference in people’s lives. They agree to meet up and spend an afternoon and an evening together around the city – though Michelle insists that it’s not a date. She doesn’t want to get involved in office gossip and politics. Running a law practice while being a woman, and a black woman at that, isn’t easy. But Barack slowly but surely woos her with his charm and gentle but unyielding manner…

    Writer/director Richard Tanne has taken the bones of what apparently occurred on that epic first date between Barack and Michelle and filled out the story with imagined dialogue and the addition of a community meeting in a church that occurred at a later date. The result is a cute variation on Before Sunrise, as these two characters walk, talk, argue and hold back any feelings until later in the story. It’s at this point that they bond over an ice cream cone – very cornball and cliched, but it’s forgivable.

    Tanne has built up enough audience goodwill to let it slide. That’s mostly due to the good performances of Sumpter (who also produces here) and Sawyers, who have chemistry, though not of the Jesse and Celine level. Their conversations cover a broad range of topics, hinting at what’s coming down the line. This is more clearly stated in the community meeting, where we get a hint of Barack’s knack for delivering powerful, emotive speeches. It’s the highlight of the film, though this reviewer wishes that the film took more risks. Tanne is playing it safe here, on the off-chance that the Obamas get around to seeing the film at some point.

    While it’s flawed and the story doesn’t have the necessary depth to portray these two future world figures in greater detail, Southside With You manages to be lightly entertaining and occasionally romantic thanks to the two leads. ***