Barack Obama isn’t out of office yet, and already I’m nostalgic for his presidency. I’d probably appreciate his easy communication and cool leadership in the face of unreasonable opposition regardless of the circumstances. However, seeing the current Republican presidential nominee call Mexicans rapists and insult the family of a fallen war hero has only brought home what a wise and diplomatic commander in chief we’ve had. If you’d prefer something that makes that point in a more positive way, there’s Southside With You, a beguiling little romance that happens to feature him and his wife as the central characters.
Set in Chicago on a hot summer day in 1989, the movie stars Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson, a second-year attorney at a corporate law firm who agrees to an afternoon meeting with one of the summer associates she’s mentoring, a bright Harvard Law student with prominent ears and a foreign-sounding name (Parker Sawyers). She keeps insisting it’s not a date, but she fools no one. During a leisurely outing that stretches into the evening, these two young people with the world before them open up to each other about their life histories and their audacious hopes for their future.
Maybe Obama nostalgia would play better a few years from now, but the film was probably made because of Sawyers, a British actor who bears an astonishing resemblance to the young Obama. His voice is a bit too high and thin to mimic our president’s oaky baritone, but he does have the man’s calm authority, dazzling smile, and distinctive speech rhythms influenced by the great tradition of African-American preachers. He puts all those to use in the movie’s best stretch, an extended scene when Barack returns to his church to rally a congregation that’s demoralized from having the city council reject their plans to build a community center. The speech he gives sounds like it came from Obama, which is to say it’s a very good speech indeed, with inspirational sentiments that would have sounded at home at last month’s Democratic National Convention: “We know that victories don’t come easy or big. … It’s hard to get things done. The Founding Fathers made it messy, so that no one law or government or man would have all the power.” (How does that grab you, Mr. Trump?) More pertinently, it also convinces us of what Michelle sees in this smooth talker who has the brain to back up his fine words and the ability to move a roomful of downcast people to fight the next battle.
While the dialogue is imagined, the story includes many salient events that the Obamas have described from their first date: visiting an art museum, having a first kiss over Baskin-Robbins ice cream, taking in Spike Lee’s controversial new film Do the Right Thing. Making his first feature film, writer-director Richard Tanne doesn’t always do so well when it comes to the life-sized banter between his romantic leads. The bit near the end with Michelle exhorting Barack to forgive his dead father for his various failures feels too pat by half, and the scene when Michelle gets angry at Barack after one of her bosses at the firm catches her out with him feels contrived.
Even so, Southside With You is steeped in African-American culture, and while that hardly makes it unique among movies, the fact that it’s about a future president and first lady helps remind you how the Obamas have put that before the nation in ways that no one else could have done. You see it when Barack and Michelle see Ernie Barnes’ painting “The Sugar Shack” and it leads them oddly but logically into a dissection of the 1970s TV sitcom Good Times and how it broadened out its stereotypical characters. You also see it in Michelle’s keen awareness of the impression she’s making on her white bosses and colleagues at the firm. (Sumpter does a dazzling impression of Michelle Obama in the less flashy role here.) Touchstones of black pride dot this story of a couple whose elevation to the White House was in some ways the ultimate symbol of black pride. That’s not enough to make this movie into a piece of great art, but in our present climate, it’s as welcome as a scoop of ice cream on a hot summer day.
[box_info]Southside With You
Starring Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. Written and directed by Richard Tanne. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]