SFIFF Review: Southside With You
It is a rare experience to see something on screen and feel like you have legitimately never seen it before. Seeing these two well-educated, young, black people fall in love on screen made me realize how rare this type of representation is. Black love is usually borne out of different circumstances and with different characters. Knowing who these two people would turn out to be almost feels secondary to just witnessing the foundations of a beautiful relationship. That the characters are completely oblivious to how historically important they and this day are, gives the movie an indescribable charm that forces you to view it as a love story before seeing it as a biopic. There is so much magic here.
The movie begins with Michelle Robinson (played beautifully by Tika Sumpter) getting dressed at her family's home for what she describes as a non-date. Her family questions her about who she is going out with and she explains that it's her mentee from work with a funny name. Cut to Barack Obama (played uncannily by Parker Sawyers), smoking and relaxing, on the phone with his grandmother explaining that he is going out with his mentor from work. It is there that we learn it is rare for "Bar" (as she calls him) to be going out with a black woman, but she approves.
The look in his eyes when he arrives to pick her up is unmistakable. He is smitten. She is much less so, noting that he is late and observing the hole in the floor of his car and the overflowing ash tray. Their date includes an art museum, dancing in the park, a community meeting and a late night viewing of "Do The Right Thing." Over the course of the day, Barack gradually convinces her that it is a date. This process is charmingly slow, as the straight laced Michelle is mostly worried about perceptions at the law firm they share.
Richard Tanne's debut film had a challenge. When you are telling a story the audience knows so well, you have to make it about the journey, rather than the destination. It almost didn't matter how insistent Michelle was, since we know the story eventually gets to two daughters and the White House. What mattered were those quiet moments where they figured out who the other was.
One particularly beautiful moment comes as Barack Obama explains the importance of an Ernie Banks painting to Michelle. His words offer a glimpse into his ideology, his blackness and his own unique set of experiences. It felt like the first moment in the film that Michelle was starting to realize who this person was. The marvel of the scene is that Tanne, a white filmmaker, so elegantly captured these cultural abbreviations between two characters who speak the same language.
The lead performances were top notch. Tika Sumpter perfectly captured Michelle's straight-laced Yin to Barack's more haphazard Yang. At times, she almost becomes the antagonist as she stands firmly against what we know is a dawning love. Parker Sawyers' version of Barack Obama is eerily accurate. There are times where it almost seems as if he is a moving still image of Barack Obama at that age. The way his limbs hang, that halting speech pattern, and even his facial features, make him nearly perfect in this role. Any time these two are on screen together, their chemistry and the appeal of the story is undeniable.
The movie does a great job of making these two 20-somethings completely oblivious as to who they are or will become. The one place it falters is that some of the other characters are not as even-handed in their assessments of Barack. In the community meeting in particular, Barack is fawned over with almost messianic praise that perhaps carries on a few beats too long. It is forgivable because of the effect it is meant to have on Michelle, but in the moment, it felt stilted.
Overall, Richard Tanne's directorial debut is a success by almost any measure. This love letter to black love is going to mean a great deal to a lot of people who so rarely get to see this type of story told in this way. This film that takes place over the course of a single day somehow contains so much of what came before it and poetically does justice to all that we know came after.