Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in ‘Southside With You’ (Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival)
The short, beguiling new Sundance drama Southside With You picked up a lot of pre-festival press for its irresistibly compelling premise. First-time writer-director Richard Tanne dared to take one of the most famous couples in the world — Barack and Michelle Obama — and make an entire movie out of a fictionalized account of their first date. Any cinematic depiction of a sitting president and first lady would seem a politically fraught one, but Southside — which is screening this week — is less about partisanship and more about passion. It actually bears a striking resemblance to Richard Linklater’s 1995 romance Before Sunrise, another movie about two attractive, brainy people walking and talking their way through a rambling, day-long date.
Southside opens in Chicago during the steamy summer of 1989 and introduces us to Michelle Robinson (a magnetic Tika Sumpter, who’s also a producer), an accomplished second-year associate at a law firm who’s carefully primping for an outing that is most definitely not a date, as she keeps reminding her teasing parents. We also meet her companion for the day, a summer associate named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) who’s smoking a cigarette in his bachelor pad before heading out to pick Michelle up. (We’re treated to the winning image of the future commander-in-chief cruising through Chicago in his rusted-out Datsun with Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” blaring on the radio.) The witty, self-possessed Michelle is clear from the beginning: She isn’t about to become involved with a coworker who’s her advisee, no less. Barack ostensibly agrees, while subtly orchestrating an entire day — a trip to the Art Institute, a picnic in the park, a movie — designed to win her over in spite of herself.
What unfolds is really one conversation that just keeps on going, ranging from the sitcom Good Times to the paintings of Ernie Barnes, from Michelle’s struggles as a black woman in a white-male-dominated corporate world to Barack’s raw feelings about his absent father. Sumpter and Sawyers are a striking onscreen couple and both navigate the tricky terrain of resembling younger versions of their real-life counterparts without ever falling into impersonation. There aren’t any overt nods to the heights the Obamas would eventually reach — except maybe the suspiciously-stump-like speech Barack ends up giving at a community meeting he takes Michelle to mid-day.
What lingers in the end though, isn’t signs of a future political career. It’s the way Southside gently evokes a dawning connection on one hot summer night. Tanne has said that he built his movie around a few real-life details from the public record — for instance Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama really did go to a screening of Do the Right Thing. They also apparently did go to Baskin-Robbins to end the night, as the characters in the movie do. It’s a dreamy image no matter who the couple is: the spark of new love over a chocolate ice cream cone.
Watch a clip from ‘Southside With You:’