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“Thought he was just another smooth talking brother?” says an inquisitive Chicago mom. She’s repeating the words her daughter used to describe a colleague she’s meeting for a first date. Never have eight words been so inaccurate. That “he,” is a twenty-something Barack Obama. The daughter is Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. As this very romantic and intelligent film brings one of the world’s most famous relationships into view, it’s easy to see why Barack and Michelle are still in love.
Famous presidential relationships abound. There’s the eccentric, Franklyn and Eleanor Roosevelt. The tumultuous, Jack and Jackie. The divisive, Bill and Hillary. Now there’s Barack and Michelle, this generation’s famous POTUS union. And their relationship is almost the model for cohabitation. Both are smart, sharp, liked and admired. They’re private, yet they live their lives in the public eye. How the hell they’ve kept their marriage together, without much controversy, is a mystery to most. Until now.
It’s ironic, but perhaps the best way to understand their relationship is by looking at the seeds of their romance through a reimagined first date, through the eyes of a White filmmaker who doesn’t even know them.
First-time writer/director Richard Tanne recreates the first days of the Obama’s partnership with a reverence fit for a king and queen and an intimacy few romantic films achieve. It’s almost as if you’re hiding in the backseat of Barack’s old beat-up car and eavesdropping. Or sitting next to them in the movie theater when they see Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” Or standing in the back of a community center when Barack delivers one of his first rousing speeches and Michelle is impressed.
Tanne’s efforts are helped greatly by Patrick Scola’s unobtrusive cinematography, Lucio Seixas’s simple production design, Megan Spatz’s lived-in costumes, Evan Schiff’s spot on editing (84 minutes) and a caressing musical score by Stephen James Taylor (Maya Angelou and “Still I Rise”). Their collective efforts set the time and place perfectly.
It’s 1989, and a hot summer day/night on the Southside of Chicago. Even with the A/C cranked up high it can’t cool things down. In the midst of a heat wave, this decades-old African American community faces challenges it still encounters today. A desire to get ahead, live in peace and bring opportunities to a neighborhood that is stymied by crime, an apathetic government and all that goes with life in the inner city.
Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter, “Ride Along”) is a Harvard Law School-educated attorney working at Sidley Austin LLP, the sixth-largest U.S.-based corporate law firm. As one of only a few Blacks in the office, she’s in a highly visible position.
Michelle is the advisor for the first-year law associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). It is with great reservation that she agrees to join him on an excursion to a community meeting at a church. She is adamant about not fraternizing with one of her Black, male colleagues. People will talk.
Barack shows up in a junkyard chariot, a broken down, compact car with a hole in the floorboard of the passenger side. They drive off, sitting close but a cool distance apart, emotionally and intellectually. Her part of the conversation is very academic and professional. His is nosy. They verbally spar, like defense and prosecuting attorneys feeling each other out to see who has the better case.
She talks about the job. He asks, “Do you believe in God?” She resists his invasive questioning. He persists. As day turns into evening, and evening into night, a platonic meeting becomes a mating dance. A tête-à-tête between two brilliant minds.
You have to wonder how Tanne was able to recreate a very intimate moment, without actually being there or interviewing the first couple. His source materials were news articles and a video he viewed of the couple recounting their first date. The rest is his imagination and a smart creative strategy that bridges intellect, emotion and physical attraction.
Surprisingly, Tanne achieves his goals with a dialogue-heavy script and a style that is reminiscent of the Richard Linklater/Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy long-winded, but thoroughly beguiling films “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” It’s the same kind of heady, verbal movie that artfully blends romance, life affirmations, thoughtful opinions and deep emotion. Films that make you think and feel.
There are points in “Southside With You” when the Afrocentric discussions (arguing over the best Stevie Wonder song) between the two colleagues become more personal and depict a supportive relationship in the making. Barack talks about his father who died and was buried under an unmarked tombstone. Michelle tells him his mission should be to put words on the stone.
The connection Tanne depicts between the two provides an illuminating backstory to a power-couple that under the glare of the spotlight always looks like they have a private bond and shared mission that will endure.
Parker Sawyer has a slightly darker complexion than President Obama, but the cheekbones, shape of his head, skinny build and determined eyes are a spitting image. It’s uncanny to watch him smoke cigarettes and give an inspiring speech. Tika Sumpter captures the essence of Michelle Obama. Her aura is identical. Her performance is brainy, assured, loving and nurturing.
“Southside With You” vividly recreates the budding romance of Barack and Michelle. It also puts on a screen, for everyone to see, a romantic courtship between educated African Americans, the kind that Hollywood rarely depicts.
A very winsome and loving film. It’s hard not to be swept off your feet.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at DwightBrownInk.com.