Southside With You Parker Sawyers, Tika Sumpter. Directed by Richard Tanne. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in select theaters.
Of all the events from Barack Obama’s life that could be dramatized (and probably will be, in years to come), his first date with his future wife Michelle is one of the least likely. But that’s what writer-director Richard Tanne has chosen to focus on exclusively for his movie Southside With You, an awkward mix of low-key romantic drama and historical foreshadowing, with dialogue that sometimes sounds like the characters reciting their own Wikipedia entries.
In 1989, Barack (Parker Sawyers) was working for the summer at a Chicago law firm where Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) was a junior associate. The two co-workers spent a long day getting to know each other, walking through the park, seeing an art exhibit, attending a community meeting, watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and finishing with some ice cream. Tanne attempts to fit the future Obamas into a sort of Before Sunrise-style indie romance, with uneven results. Sawyers and Sumpter are both charming, capturing enough of their subjects to be recognizable without attempting full-on impressions. The script, however, mostly fails them, especially when it clumsily highlights some future development for the benefit of the audience (will Barack go into politics? “Maybe,” he says).
If not for the extratextual awareness of who these people are going to become, Southside would mostly be a bore, and even so, it’s about as romantic as a civics lesson. An hour or so into the film, Barack gives an impromptu speech at the community meeting that sounds as polished and rehearsed as any the real Obama has delivered as president. It’s the most blatant example of the way the movie undermines the potential romance by setting up its characters’ later achievements. The real Barack and Michelle probably had a wonderful time together, free of any portents about their later careers in politics, but the movie’s characters don’t get that same luxury.