“Southside with You” is undoubtedly different from any normal cinematic Presidential biography. It is not a summation of a whole Presidency or an in-depth treatise on a President’s defining event. It is not even something like, say, 1940’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”, which chronicled the titular legend’s time preceding the Presidency. No, “Southside with You” is a snapshot of a pre-political fray President as director Richard Tanne presents Obama (Parker Sawyers) simply as Barack, not a leader or even a future leader but a guy still trying to figure himself out. And he is helped considerably in that process by Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) as Tanne frames his movie with the first date, so to speak, of Barack and Michelle in something like a Southside version of “Before Sunrise”, right down to the closing shots that cast them apart post-date sitting down to marinate in the memory of what just happened.
The pesky requisite stakes, like “Before Sunrise”, remain wondrously modest, stemming from Barack and Michelle, working together at a Chicago law firm, trying to decide whether their getting together to attend a community meeting at a local church truly constitutes a date. She says it no; he says yes. He does his best to make it a date, taking her to an art exhibit, buying her something to eat, going out for a mug of beer, as the film’s true foundation becomes their conversation, ranging from light-hearted arguments over the best Stevie Wonder album deeper matter of their personal lives and far-reaching societal concerns, the latter of which plays less like foreshadowing than the characters’ inherent natures. Their socially conscious discussions are actually an interesting contrast to the more whimsical deliberations of “Before Sunrise’s” Jesse and Celine, which is not to cast dispersions on the talk in “Before Sunrise” but to merely observe how upbringing and social position can inform chit-chat.
This is particularly true of Michelle. “Southside with You”, let’s be clear, is not just The Barack Obama Story, a rom com in which a kindly cad charms his date into falling in love. Michelle is allowed to make very clear that her reluctance to call their day a “date” stems from her place in the world as a black woman. To be his workplace superior and see him socially might well constitute two strikes against her and she’s fearful of taking that chance. At the same time, if Barack gets a moment to question the legitimacy of her job devotion, Michelle gets the same moment to call out Barack. They are equals, and frankly, “Southside with You” lets it come through that Michelle had her shit together sooner than Barack, quietly underscored in a few shots where Tanne has her stand taller in the frame, looking down at her future husband, like she’s telling him to catch up.
Embodying POTUS and FLOTUS is no menial task, of course, but both Sawyers and Sumpter are up to it. As Michelle, Sumpter allows a vulnerability to emerge beneath her dignity, demonstrating how the latter is not just inborn but sculpted and maintained. Sawyers, meanwhile, forgoes simple impersonation. His Barack is introduced in an undershirt, smoking and reading in an easy chair, a Hero Shot if there ever was one, a frame that Robert Mitchum would not have looked out of place in. And Sawyers uses this moment to inform his Obama, evincing a loose swagger, a man with little money in his pockets but a lot of cool confidence in how he speaks and thinks.
This comes home in the riveting community meeting where Sawyers performance and the movie impeccably harmonize, demonstrating Obama’s pre-eminent ability to work a crowd. With his fellow Chicagoans disheartened by being unable to score funding for a community center, Barack slyly takes the meeting’s reigns, holding everyone, including Michelle, in the palm of his hand, as he soothes their pain even as he keeps it real. And if Michelle is transfixed by Barack’s impeccable oratory skills, she is nonetheless intelligent enough to recognize this is genuine civil service as a means to charismatically show off, a duality that is not accidental. It would have been easy to reduce Barack to mere myth, or render him strictly as “one of us”, but in this sequence the entire Obama emerges.
He is calculating but caring, earnest but intent on getting exactly what he wants, less a compromiser than a tell-it-like-it-could-be go-getter. And even if you didn’t already know he and Michelle wound up together, in the face of this scene, well, you would be hard-pressed not to believe that they were a reality.