I have to admit that I felt nervous when I first read about this film. For one, biopics involving iconic public figures are easy traps for tacky melodrama. And with John Legend (he of the sappy pop ballads) on board as executive producer, the little paranoid voice in my head was certain that Southside with You was going to be as cringeworthy as a Lifetime TV movie. You know, the kind that gets recommended on an episode of Oprah but is actually kinda lame.
Never have I been so glad to be proven wrong! What director Richard Tanne has made is an unassuming and compassionate film about the beginnings of a relationship between two great people who would eventually become two of the world’s greatest leaders.
The setting is Chicago, 1989. Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), a young, slightly over-confident summer associate at a law firm, has convinced his colleague Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) to go out with him on the pretext of attending a community meeting. They do go to that meeting, but it also sneakily (on his part) involves a trip to an art gallery, a movie screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and then drinks and ice cream.
This is clearly not a plot-driven film but a story that expands and deepens through conversation much like Richard Linklater’s acclaimed trilogy that began with Before Sunrise (1995). It’s very satisfying to see that the quintessential “meet cute” present in most romances – and here, it’s Michelle constantly chiding the future POTUS that they’re most definitely not on a date – soon gives way to a character study. It carefully peels away the layers and reveal some fascinating insights into what makes them tick: Their family background, work ethics, ambitions, and even their fears and hopes.
There is a particularly riveting scene in the middle when Barack delivers a rousing speech to galvanize an impoverished community to not give up, and we see a glimpse of the remarkable orator that we know he will become one day.
And some moments later, a deeply moving bit where Michelle offers up some heartfelt advice on why Barack should forgive his late father.
Some very powerful and inspiring thoughts and feelings are being shared here and I literally felt like my heart was being filled. Yeah, yeah I’m a softie.
The film is only able to achieve this through the performances of its two leads, and they have found very capable actors in Sumpter and Sawyers.They had to bring to life two very well-known and beloved figures, which is already a gargantuan task, and they have succeeded elegantly.
Their controlled performances honour the Obamas – particularly Sawyers who has an uncanny resemblance to Barack – without turning them into caricatures.
I’m genuinely impressed by this modest gem of a film, and if you’re not already enamoured of the power couple, Southside with You may just make you fall in love with the Obamas.
Maybe they should’ve made this film several years ago – it would’ve totally slayed the elections!
Southside with You is out in cinemas today. Will you be catching this presidential date movie?