Saturday 1 December 2018

Movie Review: Southside With You (2016)

A biographical romance, Southside With You recreates the first date between future United States President Barack Obama and his future wife Michelle Robinson.

It's 1989 on the South Side of Chicago. Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) separately prepare to spend the day together. They are colleagues at a large corporate law firm: he is a summer intern while studying at Harvard, and she is his advisor. Michelle is reluctant to call their outing a date, not wanting to be seen going out with a coworker. Nevertheless, he convinces her to start with an unscheduled tour of an art gallery.

During the day they get to know each other. He grows to appreciate her struggle to earn respect at the law firm, although he questions whether her heart is really in working at a faceless corporation. She learns of his aimless youth years, and his lingering hostility towards his absentee and now deceased father. She also witnesses him in action at the community meeting, rallying residents towards achieving their goal of funding a new community centre.

A two-person character study, Southside With You is inspired by the tidbits later recounted by the Obamas about their early dates. The film takes place entirely in one day, imagining an initial encounter filled with meaningful conversations, plenty of probing into backgrounds and attitudes, and the usual push and pull resulting from flirting, awkwardness and initial mutual attraction.

The Richard Tanne script does not waste any time. The film clocks in at 80 minutes, and Barack and Michelle are quickly deep into discussing career aspirations, family dynamics and personal histories. Confident and eloquent, Barack is swift to challenge Michelle's career trajectory, hurting her feelings in suggesting she's on the wrong path. She in turn pokes away at his hostility towards his father, peeling away the layers of resentment to chart a path towards emotional recovery.

With Michelle clear in her discomfort around dating a work colleague, Barack takes the lead in nudging their day towards creating a personal connection. Director Richard Tanne sets the tone during the day's first stop at the art gallery, Barrack's fluid interpretations of the Ernie Barnes artwork immediately elevating him in Michelle's eyes from a well-spoken intern to a conversant gentleman steeped in the importance of black culture.

The equivalent bookend at the end of the day features the couple attending Do The Right Thing, 1989's at-the-time controversial exploration of racial tensions. With the church community meeting serving as both a focal point and an early illustration of Barack's enormous power to influence through oratory skills, Southside With You is immersed in the black middle class experience, in this case two individuals willing to make progress only if they empower others along the journey.

Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter are both excellent, with Sawyers in particular projecting an uncanny resemblance to Barack Obama's physical appearance, voice and mannerisms.

Southside With You may be a sometimes over-ardent talkfest more suited to a small stage setting, but it nevertheless resonates as an intimate peek at love's earliest blossom, with sparkles of greatness to come.

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