The Political Is Personal In 'Southside With You'
By Andrea Thompson
Who knew a movie about politics could be so adorable? It's most likely because the setting is so apolitical, that of a first date. But the people on the date just happen to be Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and his future wife Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter). So an ordinary day, with seemingly ordinary people, becomes imbued with a sense of things to come.
It's a heavy load for “Southside With You” to carry, that of staying true to real life while putting its own entertaining spin on things. But much like the smooth-talking man who would become President, “Southside” makes balancing many expectations look easy. Topics such as race, class, and especially gender, are touched upon with amazing ease.
The film takes place on a summer day in Chicago in 1989, when Barack was a seasonal associate at a law firm where Michelle was his advisor. Sawyers certainly has the harder job, portraying a man who is still coming into his own, not too presidential, but still recognizably so without becoming an imitator. But this is not the typical biopic. You know, the one focusing on a specific time in a famous person's life and just so happens to feature a meeting with the woman who would become the supportive, loving wife of the man burdened with a tormented genius.
Because “Southside” actually begins as Michelle is getting ready in the home where she still lives with her parents. The focus is and remains on her, and what she risked just on their first date, even as she insists their outing is anything but. She knows that as a black woman, she must bear a heavy burden if she is to be taken seriously, and dating one of the only black men at the firm, one under her supervision no less, is not exactly to her advantage.
But she, and every other person who watches this movie, can't help but think, “Damn, he's good.” It may be disingenuous to ask an audience to set aside politics in a movie that by its very nature is political, but there's no denying that “Southside With You” would be an amazing date movie even without the real-life couple who inspired it, with Sumpter and Sawyers sharing a crackling chemistry that the best rom-coms are made of. Throughout, the suave but vulnerable Obama remains determined to persuade the understandably reluctant Michelle to give him a chance, and they are both further humanized as they drop by an art exhibition, a community meeting, and finally, a screening of Spike Lee's “Do The Right Thing,” all the while discussing their backgrounds, work, and hopes for the future. It's a movie fully aware of the ways we're divided while choosing instead to focus on something simple we can agree on: enjoying the connection two people made on their way to the world stage.