Release Date: August 26, 2016
Director: Richard Tanne
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 84 minutes
In Southside with You, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) isn’t the future President of the United States and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) isn’t the future First Lady. They are simply two people, a lawyer and an associate at the same firm, who spend an afternoon together in Chicago during the summer of 1989.
Director Richard Tanne, who also penned the screenplay, is careful to avoid a sense of artificial destiny. That would distract from his key artistic intention, which is to slowly and naturally create a sense of undeniable chemistry, to emulate the natural flow of conversations as they occur over a number of hours, information collating gradually and meaningfully.
It is a sweet movie – perhaps a bit slight (it is over far before the 90-minute mark) and compartmentalized in how it cuts from key location to key location – but incredibly endearing in its honest wonder of how this one particular relationship formed. That this couple would go on to such lofty achievements and worldwide notability is knowledge that the viewer brings to it going in and is not something Tanne feels the need to emphasize or introduce.
Sawyers and Sumpter also go to appropriate lengths to create a degree of distance. They avoid excessive physical or tonal impersonation, which could have descended into caricature. The characters of Barack and Michelle are created as distinct entities from their real-world inspirations.
Cinematographer Pat Scola shoots the film in soft, simple tones – from parks delicately touched by golden light filtered through the trees to a church sanctuary in which Barack speaks powerfully at a community meeting, the space lit dramatically with the late-afternoon sun pouring through the windows. (This scene serves as one of the few hints at Barack Obama’s future as Barack Obama).
It’s a tacit acknowledgement of nostalgia, an event whose full reality can only be truthfully known to those who were there. Of course, one of the most well-documented aspects of that day is how the two attended a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It was that year, that summer, when the film was first released, and there was worry among some that the high-charged nature of the movie’s unforgettable final act would cause mass unrest in cities across the country.
Of course, such a hostile reception never ended up taking place, but instead its release brought a new wave of discussion among white and black Americans and how racial disparities, while not as widespread as they were, are far from a thing of the past. It’s something indirectly acknowledged through Michelle’s refusal to refer to her first informal meeting with Barack as a “date.”
She’s worried about how her superiors and colleagues at the law firm in which she works – an environment overwhelmingly dominated by older white men – will perceive a young black woman immediately starting to date a male associate of her age and ethnicity. Another scene in which the two compare and contrast their cultural upbringings, whilst perusing an Afrocentric exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, is also telling in much of the same respect.
Those lengthy scenes, aside from showcasing Tanne’s naturalistic, lo-fi writing, inspire memories of something from Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy or perhaps Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. In these movies, we are introduced to fictional characters, yet we’re very much engaged by their presence and their portrayal, not because of some particular series of actions or ideas, but because of their intelligence, personalities, and interactions.
Their similarities and their differences are richly conceived and thoughtfully introduced, all pieces leading to a greater understanding of the story at hand. This is what Southside with You achieves. It’s a bit underwritten from time to time as it pushes toward the end of the day in which it takes place, but there’s a beguiling nature to it all, one which carries you throughout, immersed in the fascinating dynamic between the couple at its center, enshrined in a summertime glow.