SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU Review

Any movie that decides to play Janet Jackson over its opening credits is off to a good start. Especially when it's "Miss You Much," coupled with eighties inspired pink text flashing across the screen. From the opening scene Southside With You sets the tone of a late summer day on the streets of Chicago at the tail end of that decade we've all suddenly become enamored with nostalgia for. It is 1989 and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) is getting set to accompany the summer associate she is advising at the law firm she works for to a town meeting to address local community issues. As the lone African-American woman working at this law firm Robinson has had to work doubly hard in order to gain the respect she desires and she's not about to let the first charismatic, smooth-talking black guy convince her to undo all that hard work by going on a date with him. Or is she? It just so happens this young, summer associate is a hotshot from Harvard named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). And so, yes, Southside With You is the story of the first date between the now President and First Lady of these United States of America via the lens of something akin to director Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. It's a clich├ęd comparison at this point, but an apt one as the majority of Southside With You is filled by our two main characters walking and talking. If you haven't seen Linklater's trilogy that chronicles a couple meeting and spending a single night together that was little more than that in 1995 it is the epitome of characters walking and talking. Chronicling that magic of how perfect strangers can connect so intimately over a short period of time and analyzing that indescribable feeling that creates a strong, trusting bond between two people-a bond that will inevitably turn to love-Linklater's films provide a nice template for how to both simply and intricately weave together the innocence of falling for someone and the complex emotions that will inevitably come with circumstance. Linklater has returned to his characters in ten year intervals with sequels in 2004 and 2013, but with Southside With You writer/director Richard Tanne takes notes largely from that initial meeting treating his characters not as the future Mr. and Mrs. President, but simply as two people in that awkward phase between true adolescence and true adulthood who are just trying to figure themselves and the world they live in out.

A twenty-eight year old Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) prepares for his first date with his future First Lady.
The film begins by setting the stage for who each of these characters are on their own terms. Robinson is very much a product of her nurturing environment as her parents are both warm and encouraging presences who clearly trust the woman their daughter has become. The film goes into the reasoning's of why Robinson's father was so adamant about his children (Michelle has an older brother she consistently speaks highly of) taking their education seriously, but it goes without saying that Robinson was more or less destined to be successful no matter what she decided to try her hand at-the work ethic was ingrained in her DNA is the point. On the other side of things is Obama, who at this point in time was a twenty-eight year old smoker with daddy issues sporting a beat-up yellow car with a hole in the floorboard. It's meant to be humanizing and it is-it's endearing. The issue Southside With You was always going to face though, was the issue of making us care about these individuals even without the caveat of knowing who they become. Though this is an inescapable fact and more or less hovers over the proceedings from the opening frame both Tanne as well as his actors do a solid job of engaging us in the dynamic between these two very driven and sometimes very different individuals. Overall, this is still a movie about a boy chasing after a girl and this main if not somewhat slight objective considering the obstacles we know this couple goes on to face together is fittingly accomplished by guiding our characters through a series of events meant to elicit the multiple attributes that have composed these individuals into the people they were at that time in their lives. Obama understands why his colleague is hesitant to enter into any kind of romantic relationship with him and yet he can't help but be persistent. Though the idea Obama has in swaying the hardened Robinson to his point of view is indeed admirable-taking her to a setting surrounded by people that adore him-she sees right through it while at the same time sparking the idea he likely intended for her to have. Obama is a natural orator and this combination of charm, smoothness, and general inspiration is enough to give him a glimmer of hope that Robinson may grant him her ability to let go.

While Sumpter and Sawyers both convey convincing performances neither of them are doing full-on impersonations of the personas we've all come to be familiar with. More, the two lead performances feature slight mannerisms and tics that one might recognize, but more often than not it simply feels as if we're watching two intelligent and cultured individuals having an interesting set of conversations. From strolling through the south side, to taking in an art exhibit, to then grabbing a bite to eat prior to the centerpiece town meeting what keeps Southside With You so delightful is in fact that conversation and how it gives us a glimpse into who these individuals are as people-figures we've come to know more as ideas than actual people-and what it is about their lives that led them to be who they'd ultimately become. More, the film nails the natural progression of the connection that is formed between these two. We hear Obama discuss the interracial relationship of his parents-how his father may as well have been Nat King Cole and his mother Patsy Cline-and how he's come to ultimately be living in a way that goes against the way his birth father did things in life. Such perspectives when spouted against the love and adoration Robinson has for her own father create this mentality of one attempting to challenge the other. This isn't conveyed in a competing fashion, but more in the vein of forcing one another become the better, more insightful individual each of them seem to see in the other. Obama challenges Robinson in ways having to deal with her role at the law firm and her hesitance to date him stemming from her unhappiness in conforming to the ways of the world in 1989 while Robinson challenges Obama to forgive his father so that he ultimately doesn't become that same man. She instructs that, "Every father's life is incomplete. That's why they have sons," and that he, "needs to forgive to become better," than those that have treated him wrong. In short, Tanne makes it evident from very early on that both Obama and Robinson are individuals who thrive in relationships with those who tend to challenge them to be the best version of themselves. That Tanne is able to channel this through two charismatic and compelling performances only enlivens the potential this relationship held from its inception.

Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) is hesitant to call her first encounter with Obama outside their place of work a date.
Outside of the development of the key relationship Southside With You has a lot of good/fun stuff going on and ideas that are easy enough to relate to while still managing to be profound. Whether it be the somewhat hazy/sun scorched cinematography from Patrick Scola that reiterates the time of year and humidity that is unnecessary when you're a guy on a first date with a girl who doesn't want to call it a date or the simplicity of Sumpter's Robinson carrying through her arc that things are not always as they appear in a fashion that doesn't feel as hackneyed as it sounds, but more in a way that enlightens her summer associate in ways that allow him to absorb such thoughts and reflect them back through his own prism in ways that impress the hard to impress Robinson. The film uses pop culture influences such as the paintings created by Ernie Barnes for Good Times or the timely release of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing as points of reference in which to pull more characterization from our two leads. The Barnes paintings allow a very distinct perspective from Obama while doubling as a way to illustrate Robinson's own mantra to herself. Lee's film, while a catalyst for black culture at the time, very much serves as a way of showing how African-Americans who would conform to the white man's view of the world on a daily basis might actually be granted an opportunity to flip the script on those who thought they owned the world because their ancestors were the ones who planted a flag. These references frame what is the highlight of the film though, in the town hall meeting where we get a chance to glimpse the seedlings of Obama: the leader of the free world. His speech, delivered to a group of discouraged parents who have just been dealt a denial for funding of a local community center for their children, delivers ideas and sentiments I would hope all could agree with regardless of political party, race, and religion or, as Obama puts it-states of mind, land, and people. The idea being there are many different kinds and types of states with his thesis being that to keep such states united we must turn our own self-interests into mutual interests. It's the age old idea of imagining what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes, but when done so genuinely it hits just the right notes so as to believe there is no greater agenda. Literally and figuratively the film comes to the sweetest of conclusions where, at only a slight 84-minutes, it is able to leave you wanting more.