Yeah, it came too soon. Like his candidacy, his presidency, his premature Nobel Prize.
But “Southside with You” is a lovely little Michelle and Barack first-date romance, a celebration of a symbolic presidency and a classy First Couple. This understated and chatty movie ignores that distant future and focuses on that romantic staple — that first date story, the awkward moments, and the sweet ones.
Actor turned first-time feature writer-director Richard Tanne zeroes in on the awkwardness, the competing agendas and different backgrounds of native Chicago lawyer Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, a Hawaiian/Harvard man spending his summer in his adoptive home, Chicago. Tanne found two good, under-used actors, wrote them conversations that cover everything from religion to desserts, family to politics, and followed them for one long, dreamy afternoon and evening in the summer of ’89, the year of Spike Lee’s watershed film, his masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing.”
Michelle (Tika Sumpter of the “Ride Along” movies) is primping entirely too much for her family to buy “It ISN’T a date.”
Barack (Parker Sawyers of “Zero Dark Thirty” and other military films)? He’s smoking. And taking phone calls from his granny, assuring her that yes, “Her skin is of the dark persuasion.”
She was his adviser at the corporate law firm where he was interning. Michelle, a Princeton/Harvard Law grad herself, was already an associate and bridling at “being two different people,” at living in “Planet Black,” her family, and “Planet White,” the work world where she “fills a quota” in the name of diversity, but where the price is a chunk of her identity.
She describes this fellow she’s going to a community organizing meeting as “another smooth-talking brother.” But she’s going. Just so long as “this is NOT a date. Because that would be tacky.”
He picks her up. He’s late. Then comes the first misunderstanding. The meeting isn’t for hours. Let’s go to an African American art exhibit at the museum. Walk in the park. Maybe grab a sandwich and a slice of pie.
“I don’t like pie.”
He may be driving a battered Tercel with the floorboards rusted out, but he oozes self-confidence. They banter, lightly bicker and reveal bits and pieces of themselves. Then they reach the meeting, where the “smooth-talking brother” shows himself. He’s mastered rhetoric, the politics of persuasion. He pipes up, just as the crowd is voicing frustration at how little gets accomplished, and his words take flight. If he was trying to impress a woman, this is the set up to end all set-ups.
For those not swept up in the politics of “personal story,” a lot of this will be a revelation. She lived at home in an ambitious family of hard workers where responsibility and devotion are paramount.
His Kenyan dad may not have been around, and his mom was a rolling stone her own self. But Dad got into Harvard before Barack, and Mom showed him the world.
Sawyer’s got the gangly, unworried and unhurried Obama “cool” down pat. He mastered the cadences of Obama’s speech, if not the stammers and occasional vocalized pauses evident when he’s off-script, putting thought into what he’s going to say.
Sumpter makes Michelle the one with some bite, someone who will turn on you if you suggest she’s selling out, doing corporate law. Maybe because she wonders if that’s what she’s done. Sumpter makes us feel the attraction she must have felt, and the embarrassment when people from his world (the meeting) assume she’s “his woman.”
“We’re not together. At ALL!”
The resemblance is good, but the edge these players give their characters makes them interesting.
Tanne has crafted a winning film of smart, probing conversation that plays like an affectionate going away gift to the Obamas. It won’t reach the birthers, the Dinesh D’Souza disciples and their ilk. It isn’t freighted with a sense of destiny about this transformative figure.
It’s just a date, no matter what “she” says, a meeting of the minds of two like-minded people who have to get past the “smooth-talking” and pie barriers to realize just how like-minded they are.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
Credits: Written and directed by Richard Tanne. A Miramax/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:25