ReelBob: ‘Southside With You’
By Bob Bloom
How you feel about President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will color your reaction to “Southside With You.”
The movie, set over the span of a day in 1989 Chicago and chronicling the first date between the future first couple, will be embraced and praised by those who admire the pair.
Those who despise the Obamas and believe they are devils incarnate who have led the nation down a path of ruin, will view the film as a piece of liberal propaganda.
If you can put the future aside while viewing the film, “Southside With You” is a relaxed picture about two young black professionals slowly learning about each other as they navigate the social and cultural politics of office romances, stressful positions and dealing with white perceptions of what it means to be black in a professional setting — in this case, a prestigious Chicago law firm.
Barack Obama is a summer intern associate at the firm. Michelle Robinson, an associate lawyer, is his supervisor.
Obama tells Robinson that the purpose of this first “meeting” outside the workplace is to take her to a community event that might interest her.
Robinson repeatedly insists that their afternoon together is not a date, but Obama has other ideas.
Showing up hours before the time of the meeting, he first takes Michelle to an Afro-centric art exhibit. At first, she is angry that Barack has tricked her into thinking they are simply going to the meeting, believing he is just another “smooth-talking brother.”
She reluctantly accompanies him to the exhibition, where they begin slowly learning about each other, warily circling and probing to see what makes the other one tick.
Writer-director Richard Tanne, at times, creates banter between the pair worthy of a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn exchange.
Smartly, the movie does not offer a political agenda. It’s simply a story of two smart, ambitious and committed professionals discovering what they have in common, and sharing their views on life, race and society.
Tika Sumpter, who also serves as one of the movie’s producers, as Michelle, has the showier part.
Sumpter’s Michelle sees herself treading a narrow path between being taken seriously at the firm and simply being there as a token.
She tells Obama that she must work doubly hard in an environment dominated by white males.
Michelle fears colleagues’ perception, which is why she refused to acknowledge that she and Obama are on a date. She tells him that she does not want to be fodder for office gossip.
As Obama, Parker Sawyers wisely does not perform an impersonation of the future president. But, he does capture the man’s cadence and, more importantly, his charming and even persuasive manner.
He reveals much of himself to Michelle, especially when discussing his abandoning Kenyan father for whom it is evident he harbors some disdain and resentment.
When the pair finally attends the community event — and Obama is asked to speak — Michelle begins to see that the young man has more depth and commitment than she first imagined. It impresses her, as well as stirs something deep inside her.
Obama’s talk at the event is the only moment in the movie that feels contrived, as if Tanne needed added justification for Michelle’s slow thawing toward her date.
As afternoon turns into evening, Barack and Michelle attend a screening of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” which, upon its release, stirred much controversy in its depiction of black-and-white relations and its violent finale.
The evening ends with Barack and Michelle returning to their homes, both realizing that they made a connection, which could lead to something much more.
The charm of Tanne’s film is its understatement; its strength is its presentation of two smart people on the cusp. Tanne need not add a prologue, relying on the intelligence of his audience to know the rest of the story.
“Southside With You” is a stimulating and sharp feature that even some free-thinking political opponents of the couple can enjoy.
Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU
3½ stars out of 4
(PG-13), language, smoking, a violent image, drug references