Film Review: Southside with You

Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson go on their first “date” in a subtly layered two-hander that offers far more depth than the typical indie rom-com.
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Over the past eight years, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle have become one of the country’s most popular power couples, right up there with Jay Z and Beyoncé, and maybe Kim and Kanye. Richard Tanne’s feature film debut couldn’t come at a better time to explore the current POTUS from a rarely seen viewpoint, that of his future girlfriend and wife.

We meet Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and a chain-smoking Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) as they’re preparing to spend the day together in the Southside of Chicago, where Michelle lives with her parents. They work together at a law firm—the only two African-Americans there—so Michelle is rightly adamant about making sure that this isn’t a “date.”

Barack has other ideas, and he spends much of his time trying to impress Michelle, while at the same time learning more about her. Their time together begins rather innocuously, walking through the park and talking about their lives and families. Once they get to the community meeting Barack initially invited Michelle to attend, she sees first-hand how much the Chicago community means to him and vice versa. It’s also where we see Obama’s ability at giving inspiring speeches begin to develop, something that would eventually lead him to the presidency.

Up until that point, Michelle has been apprehensive, but the impact of Barack’s speech gives him enough leverage to convince her to join him for a drink and a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which is all anyone is talking about during the summer of ’89. It’s especially resonant after hearing the community talk about their problems and how they compare to Lee’s take on ’80s Brooklyn.

Overall, Tanne’s film is a surprisingly pleasant experience from beginning to end, and it’s impressive how the white filmmaker can tap into the African-American experience of living in Chicago during that time period. It’s staggering to think how much research must have gone into making Michelle and Barack’s conversations feel authentic, cherry-picking facts from their lives up until they met, but it’s an effort that brings a lot more resonance to the film.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Sumpter—best known from the Ride Along movies and also a producer on the film—and Sawyers, a lesser-known British actor, have undeniable chemistry. Tanne’s dialogue flows smoothly between them, creating a lighthearted feeling that harks back to the likes of Richard Linklater’s “Before” series.

Only the real Barack and Michelle know how much of Southside with You bares any resemblance to reality, because they were the only ones there for their first "date." You can say the same thing about Lincoln or any movie about a U.S. President, and to Tanne’s credit he doesn’t try to make a film that panders to viewers by being overly political. Instead, he has created a perfectly relatable indie rom-com that just so happens to be about our President and First Lady.

Tanne’s musical choices also add a lot to the film’s lighter tone, whether it’s Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” playing on the radio, or the subtle scoring by Stephen James Taylor that never detracts from the dialogue.

Southside with You works perfectly well as a character portrait even without the added layer of it being based on the country’s First Couple. Richard Tanne’s incredible efforts to create authenticity within this budding relationship make it one of the more inventive films about two people getting to know each other.

Click here for cast and crew information.