Film Review: Southside with You (2016)

On the surface Richard Tanne’s Southside with You has the appearance of a bad joke. Taking place over the course of a 1989 afternoon on Chicago’s south side, the film depicts the first date between future first lady Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and future president “No Drama” Obama (Parker Sawyers). Before watching it, I worried such a setup would wind up a gross political exercise at best and some sort of wretched parody at worst.

Yet with the writing and directing of Tanne, the performances of Sumpter and Sawyers and the cinematography of Pat Scola, Southside with You is neither of these things. The film functions and functions well as a romance, a walk and talk in the mold of the Before Sunrise series, a presidential prologue and as an idealized albeit loving tribute to many of Chicago’s overlooked community areas.

Unsurprisingly, Southside with You begins at the beginning of the date between Barack and Michelle, which Michelle insists repeatedly and in various volumes is NOT truly a date. The pair go to an art show at the South Shore Cultural Center, attend a community meeting where Obama gives a speech and see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, all the while broaching topics ranging from their current jobs at a corporate law firm, the baggage in each of their respective families and their hopes for the future.

In a film such as this, writing and acting are paramount. Shot for only $1.5 million bucks, the film is stripped-down and intimate, calling on dialogue and performance to do the heavy lifting. Southside with You brings the goods on both fronts. Tanne’s script glides effortlessly from capturing semi-playful banter between Barack and Michelle to evoking real pathos regarding each character’s life struggles. Similarly, the acting of Sumpter and Sawyers is excellent, capturing a chemistry but also a combativeness, exuding the strength, charisma and intelligence for which the former First Couple is well-known.

Portraying such famous, contemporary figures would be a daunting challenge for any actor, which is why the effect achieved in Southside with You feels particularly notable. The performances of Sumpter and Sawyers do not feel contrived or artificial, and both actor’s largely evoke the spirit of the couple rather than the physical or linguistic quirks.

Of course, some of that stuff is in Southside with You, but it is never the central focus. Parker Sawyers, for example, looks fairly similar to the 43rd President. He also captures elements of his iconic cadence and loose, almost gangly physicality. Yet it’s still a nuanced performance, helped by the fact that he sounds little like our dearly departed Leader of the Free World. Conversely, Tika Sumpter doesn’t look much like Michelle Obama, but her vocal mannerisms do sound roughly similar. Still, they take a backseat to qualities of toughness, intelligence and empathy, attributes that always felt like a major part of the former First Lady.

Between Sawyers and Sumpter, it’s difficult to assess who gives the better performance. The later undoubtedly has the more difficult role, as initially Michelle is not as obviously likable as Sawyer’s Barack. Yet Sumpter gamely rises to the challenge, gradually showing more and more sides of Michelle over the course of the date. It’s a testament to both the actress and Tunne’s writing that this particular character feels as multifaceted as she does. In Southside with You, Michelle is an authentic human being, full of contradictions. She’s defensive yet open, acerbic yet empathetic, ambitious yet giving.

Authenticity defines Southside with You and is certainly present in the film’s overall depiction of Chicago’s sprawling south side. Now, I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but I did live there for nearly six years during the second half of the aughts – and largely on the south side. I have rarely seen a film depict the area in even a semi-favorable light. However, through the lens of Southside with You’s DP, Pat Scola, the south side of Chicago is transformed from the gun-ravaged hellscape you hear about in newscasts to a much more variegated environment – which is much closer to how I remember it. Although somewhat idealized, as major portions of the south side have indeed fallen prey to urban blight and divestment over the decades, it’s refreshing to see this huge area of Chicago (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who live there) treated with a measure of respect and compassion.

This depiction also plays into the film’s thesis. As Sawyers’ Barack Obama says at one point in Southside with You, “We have to let go of judgement,” a remark that could not be more fitting for the psychotic political age in which we currently live. Southside with You is not about politics though, not really. Oh sure, assholes will say that Barack and Michelle come out looking pretty darn good, which I suppose is a political statement of some sort. But more than anything else, Southside with You is about how divides and preconceptions are present everywhere. They infect everything – from opinions on a particular neighborhood to romantic interactions between two people – and can only be overcome through optimism, hard work and consensus building, which are not partisan. This is the actual concern the film explores, even if it also reminds one of the former First Family’s innate decency. From my perspective, both messages are beneficial, helping to salve the burning madness and cynicism of our Trumpian age.

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