Southside With You, which premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival, opens with a future president of the United States driving in his beat up AMC Pacer, listening to Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much.” Even though Barack Obama is technically a Baby Boomer (he was born in 1961), this is the closest I’ve felt to a presidential origin story that at least sort of seems familiar. (I’ve never been involved in a duel or lived in a log cabin.) Being the president still seems like a job for older people, not someone who psyched himself up for a date by listening to songs off of Rhythm Nation 1814.
Southside With You is a fictionalized account of the 1989 first date between Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) – an “imagining,” if you will. (If it weren’t fictionalized, boy, there sure would have been a lot of foreshadowing about these two people’s lives. Pretty heavy stuff for a first date.)
The thing is, Southside With You doesn’t attempt to probe deep down into the lives of our current president and first lady and find something scandalous or shocking — the closest it comes is portraying Barack Obama as a chain smoker, something we already knew — it’s just a really sweet and charming film about a young woman who isn’t quite sure what to make of this young man who works as a summer associate at her law film while he’s home from Harvard. We hear her say many times that this “isn’t a date,” but by the end, when the two are having cocktails, then seeing Do the Right Thing, it’s totally a date.
The best thing I can say about Southside With You is that this story about two people would still work even if it weren’t about the Obamas. It really does have a Before Sunrise feel to it. In conversation, we learn a lot about the two of them and their motivations and their dreams. (At this point, Barack’s dream is just to graduate from college, something his father had failed at doing.)
There’s a heavy-handedness to a scene set in a church in which some community activists ask Barack to speak. This seems like an odd place to be on a first date! But, it does give Sawyers a chance to do his “Obama giving a speech” interpretation and it’s uncanny. There’s a difference between an impression and trying to truly capture a person. An impression (like, say, Jay Pharoah’s wonderful work on SNL) is funny. What Sawyers has to do is much more nuanced and, boy, he’s just wonderful.
My favorite scene takes place at an art gallery in which Barack and Michelle discuss Good Times and how the character of J.J. was a stereotype, but developed into a character who loved to paint. (The two are attending a showing of Ernie Barnes’ work, whose painting “The Sugar Shack” was made famous by the show’s credits.) It’s a nice moment between two people who don’t really know each other, but we all know how this all turns out. And that’s what makes Southside With You work, because it just boils down to two people trying to figure out life and each other.