Director Richard Tanne
Starring Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
Released on 30th September 2016
For some time, Hollywood was rife with speculation about a Hillary Clinton biopic – or actually, a Hillary Rodham one, as there were two projects in contention and both were said to be set during her early years as a lawyer. And then it all went quiet. Can’t imagine why. Conversely, Oliver Stone – never one to do the conventional – brought out W in 2008, his biopic of George W Bush, a year before his presidency came to an end. And it was unexpectedly kind to somebody considered as a satirist’s perfect target.
And now we have another film about the current US president, just before he departs. But it’s not one that looks back on his time in office. Instead, Southside With You goes back to 1989 and the day when Barack Obama took Michelle Robinson on what turned out to be their first date. One that took in an art exhibition, live music, a community meeting, drinks and a movie. Michelle was adamant it wasn’t a date: she was his supervisor at work and it wouldn’t have been appropriate. Barack thought otherwise, but went along with her, until she eventually melted. Like the ice cream he bought her.
If you didn’t know what the film was about, you’d think from the title that it was a musical. And, who knows, it could happen in the future. In the meantime, we have this, which is set in Chicago’s South Side, known for its predominantly black population, high crime rate and poor housing. We see both sides, the middle class as represented by Michelle and her family and the less affluent side, including a memorably gloomy underpass with different names written on every single brick of the wall, male and female.
And while the context is important, the focus is very much on Barack and Michelle and it doesn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts for what was to become one of the world’s most famous couples. Michelle is defensive and prickly, steadfastly resisting his easy charm – and the fact that he clearly intends this to be a date. He also keeps trying to cover up his cigarette habit.
As a date – or an afternoon out – it’s very varied, although you do raise an eyebrow at him taking her to a community meeting, knowing that he’s going to be one of the speakers. It’s a return visit to where he’d been a community activist and it’s also where the film gets clumsy. OK, so Obama didn’t become an orator overnight when he became president but his speech in the church here is clearly designed as a forerunner to “Yes, we can!”, only this time it’s “They say no. We say carry on.” Not quite as snappy but you can see where it’s heading.
The Obamas have guaranteed their place in American and world history and I can’t help but think US audiences will find the film more meaningful than we will in this country. It’s a rose-tinted view of their first date, so it’s all about looking forward to the people they were to become. We see his ability to make speeches and hers to engage with people. While they’re watching some live music, a little girl invites her to dance and she enters into the spirit of things with huge enthusiasm.
Sadly, the script isn’t always all it could be. Instead of talking with each other, there are times when it sounds like they’re making speeches at each other. But, in what is close to being a two-hander, Parker Sawyers is an excellent choice as Obama: physically, he looks like he could mature into the current president, he has the easy going charm and reproduces those familiar speech rhythms with ease. Tika Sumpter is equally good as Michelle, more than holding her own with the high flyer, to the extent that there are moments when you think she’s the one who should have become the politician.
Southside With You is, first and foremost, a romance, one based on actual events – although that community meeting speech actually happened a year later – but with added interest because of the couple at its centre. As a romance, it’s not wholly successful, but the performances of its two leads keeps its head above water. Even if it’s odds-on that there are bound to be things that will go straight over the collective heads of us Brits.
Southside With You is released in cinemas on Friday, 30 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 29 September.