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Southside with You is far better than its premise suggests. Set in Chicago 1989, the film is a fictionalised re-creation of the first date between future American President Barack Obama, played by Parker Sawyers, and First Lady Michelle Obama (née Robinson), played by Tika Sumpter. In an attempt to win her affection, Barack takes his work colleague Michelle to an Afro-Centric art-exhibit, a community forum in which he is involved, and later to the cinema to see Spike Lee’s racially-charged masterpiece Do the Right Thing.
To its credit, Southside with You plays like a breezy, ‘walking and talking’ independent romantic comedy, a la Before Sunrise, that just happens to centre on people whom the audience already know. Due to this pre-existing knowledge, the film works on two levels: it succeeds as a genre-movie, providing the audience with two characters who are enjoyable to be around and who possess great chemistry. It’s also interesting seeing these prominent world figures at a younger age and searching for little glimpses of their future selves.
The performances by Sawyers and Sumpter are never just a collection of physical or vocal ticks – there are no moments in writer-director Richard Tanne’s script where Obama says “yes we can,” thankfully. Instead, they are very well-layered. The two play to archetypes of the rom-com genre – Barack as the smooth and suave lady-killer pursuing the uptight Michelle – while also paying subtle homages to their real-life counterparts. Barack Obama’s trademark head tilt and penchant for the word “listen” is utilised once or twice, as is Michelle’s sharp and precise vocal pattern.
Although the movie is very small in scope, choosing just one day (of a man whose entire life could be a biopic) to focus on, it has big themes. For example, the reason Michelle is apprehensive about becoming romantically involved with Barack (she continually states “it’s not a date”) is because they are work colleagues. She feels it’s hard enough to be respected as a black female lawyer at her firm without a reputation for being flirtatious. There are also moments which highlight society’s taboo with interracial relationships (it’s odd to Michelle that Barack previously had a white girlfriend) and unintentional, subtle racism (Michelle’s white boss struggles to comprehend the end of Do the Right Thing).
Overall, Southside with You plays as both a light rom-com (its only 84 minutes in length) with weighty themes and as a tribute to the Obamas, who will be vacating the White House late January. This film will make the viewer miss them even more.
Southside with You is in cinemas now. View the trailer below.