This weekend, Roadside Attractions invites everyone to relive Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in Southside With You. This is a sweet and often times poignant film, a look at the struggles of inner-city families during late 1980’s, and many of their issues mirror the ones we face today. Director Richard Tanne uses this famous first date as a vehicle to shed light on these issues, but does so in a way that’s organic and doesn’t derail the film.
Michelle Robinson (The First Lady’s maiden name) was an advisor at a law firm in Chicago struggling to work her way up the corporate ladder. She lived at home to help tend to her father, who was struggling with Multiple Sclerosis. Barack Obama was an associate at the same firm and had spent the better part of a month trying to woo Michelle. Finally, she reluctantly agreed to go with him to a community organizers meeting, but didn’t realize that she was in for a day that she wouldn’t soon forget.
One of the biggest things that stands out is the casting of both the male and female leads. Parker Sawyers embodies a younger President Obama. It’s evident he studied up on a few of his mannerisms, but his portrayal was far from a Jay Pharoah impression. Often times when actors are cast in these roles as famous figures, their portrayal is much more of an impression than actual acting (see: Josh Brolin in W). Sawyers shows a great deal of warmth and compassion on screen. He’s charismatic and appropriately commands each of his scenes.
Tika Sumpter is fabulous as a younger Michelle. She exudes that same spunk and decisiveness that we’ve grown accustomed to from our First Lady these past eight years. I already miss her. Sumpter also exhibits a layer of pain stemming from the daily trials of dealing with her father. To be honest, the news about the First Lady’s dad having MS surprised me. But Sumpter shows strength (much like I Imagine the first lady had to) throughout the film earning the empathy.
Richard Tanne does a commendable job both writing and directing Southside With You. While he makes sure to keep a two-shot anytime Barack and Michelle are on screen to emphasize the intimacy of their first date, he also manages to include shots of the inner city that permeate these two budding lovers’ romance. One shot that stood out to me was a children’s playground right next to an old school house. The shot starts with a focus on what looked to be a barren playground, seemingly falling to bits. But it quickly transitions, pulling away to show an operating school, murky and well past its prime.
The most powerful shot is the inside of the church where Barack is set to speak during the afternoon. This church is old, has broken seating, has plumbing issues – which isn’t typical of most churches but certainly is in the inner city. Tanne certainly shows the need for investing in the infastructure of our cities, which is true in 1989 and sadly remains true today.
Tanne also deftly crafts a narrative that’s both sweet and topical, discussing issues of race and national anxiety. The film also perfectly approaches the African-American perspective when Michelle’s boss from the law firm runs into her and Barack after seeing Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Her very caucasian boss doesn’t seem to get why the film ended the way it did (“Why did the African Americans riot in the end?”). Michelle and Barack both know too well why, but Barack proceeds to give a very safe answer to Michelle’s boss as to why they rioted, which he of course accepts as the reason and moves on. Why did Barack appease the head of Michelle’s firm? Why was this happening in 1989? Are things any different today?