Sight unseen, “Southside with You” sounds like a really bad idea…or at least one with a booby trap around every corner.
The subject of writer/director Richard Tanne’s feature debut is the early relationship of Barack and Michelle Obama.
This is the sort of project one might expect to 20 years after the Obamas leave the White House. By that time history will have had a chance to sort things out.
It’s certainly not what one anticipates while the man is still sitting in the Oval Office.
But put those misgivings aside. “Southside with You” is a terrific film — funny, romantic, respectful without being stuffy and, yes, inspiring.
Every time it looks like things will bog down in discourse, politics or hagiography, this well-acted effort gracefully sidesteps the crisis.
Set in 1989, the film begins with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) in her parents’ Chicago home getting gussied up for an appointment. Meanwhile young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyer) is doing the same thing in a haze of cigarette smoke.
A Harvard law student, Barack is a summer intern at a big Chicago law firm where second-year associate Michelle is his adviser. He’s asked her to accompany him to a community meeting on the city’s South Side. (Her mama teases her about spending time with “another smooth-talking brother.”)
Michelle is less than impressed when Barack picks her up in a rattletrap sedan filled with cigarette butts. She must straddle a rusty hole in the passenger-side floorboards.
And she’s indignant when she discovers that their meeting is several hours away, that Barack hopes to fill the time with date-like activities like a museum visit and lunch.
“We work together,” she protests. “A date would be inappropriate.”
Michelle explains that it’s hard for a young black woman in a big law firm to be taken seriously. Dating the summer help is out of the question.
“It’s not a date until you say it is,” Barack concedes. But we all know that before the day is over it’s going to be something bigger than that.
“Southside with You” consists of a series of scenes, all playing out in one afternoon and evening in unhurried real time.
There’s a visit to an exhibition of African-American art at which Barack makes a case for the socio-political importance of the TV sitcom, “Good Times.”
They talk about the marvel that is Stevie Wonder. He reveals his adolescent marijuana use.
They discuss their parents.
“My father looked like Nat King Cole; my mother looked like Patsy Cline,” Barack says. He views his late father as a failure, a fate he’s determined to avoid.
Michelle is proud of the father who despite having M.S. has held down an important job at the city water department.
It’s not always a smooth ride. She bristles at Barack’s suggestion that she’s not suited for a career in corporate law, that’s she too outspoken and principled to suffer foolishness in silence.
Finally making it to the community meeting (where the neighborhood ladies treat Barack like a long-lost son), Michelle can’t help but be impressed when her “date” energizes the group in the wake of a frustrating struggle with City Hall over a proposed community center.
Barack delivers a mini-lecture on constitutional law and incremental progress. It’s so concisely effective that one wishes certain political candidates would watch this film just for the lessons of this passage.
That night they take in Spike Lee’s, “Do the Right Thing.” And they discuss Barack’s dating history with white women.
Handled badly, all this could add up to a world-class eye roller. But filmmaker Tanne (he was only 4 years old in ’89…and is Caucasian) creates a genuine sense of place and time, all the while foreshadowing his subjects’ political ascendency.
There are times when “Southside…” feels like the perfect mashup of “Before Sunrise,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Love & Basketball” and the John Ford classic “Young Mr. Lincoln.”
Though grounded in fact this is, of course, a work of fiction. But it certainly feels right.
Of course, it wouldn’t work without terrific central performances.
Leaping into the big-time after a series of walk-on performances, Parker Sawyer does the near impossible, giving us the essence of a young Barack Obama without stooping to overt mimicry.
He’s got an appropriately lanky frame and beautifully approximates Obama’s physical presence. He nails the familiar cadences of speech (though the President’s voice is considerably lower).
And he’s got charm. Tons of it. Heck, folks, I’d do him.
Tika Sumpter’s Michelle isn’t quite as well-formed…but that’s not a criticism of the actress. This Michelle is still finding her place in the world, torn between social concerns and careerism, and perhaps looking for an inspiration to nudge her in the direction favored by her innermost self.
Both performances are subtly informed and powerfully enriched by the people we know Barack and Michelle will become. We get flashes of their familiar personas, but we are catching them at a point where their characters are still works in progress.
The beauty of “Southside with You” is that it would work even if the characters weren’t named Barack and Michelle. It’s a wonderful little love story…with a whole lot else going on besides.