Sundance Review: Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers Embody Obama Charisma in “Southside With You”

Southside With You Review

Over the past eight years President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have captivated the masses with their infectious charm and undeniable charisma. And putting politics aside, there’s no question that the Obamas exemplify what it means to be in a genuinely supportive relationship. It’s an endearing trait to have, and one that’s set an example for everyone on how to move with those closest to us. We’ve learned a lot watching these two operate as a unit: Barack handles domestic and international affairs, while Michelle supports his moves and launches her own initiatives to inspire hope and progress among our youth. As a family, the Obamas broke through political glass ceilings and evoked an extraordinary sense of optimism by becoming the first African-American family to reside in the White House. And through the years of Obama’s presidency, we’ve collectively watched Barack and Michelle’s relationship grow stronger in the wake of this nation’s most progressive and troubling moments.

There’s a story to be told here. One that explores the couple’s budding relationship before their rise to prominence and international influence. Cue Richard Tanne’s Southside With You, the 30-year-old New Jersey native’s directorial debut about a young Harvard man wooing a young law associate on their very first date. The moment Southside With You starts, Tanne dives into a refreshingly intimate look at the world’s most powerful couple’s modest upstart. Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is seen readying herself for what she convinces her parents is not a date, but rather a professional outing between colleagues, while Barack (Parker Sawyers) smokes a cigarette in his lounge chair – cool as a cucumber. Tanne introduces us to both figures’ perspectives on how the day will unfold with humorous winks and nods of what we’ve already come to learn about them.

Tanne, pulling double duty as director and writer, is clearly inspired by Richard Linklater’s minimalist storytelling from his critically acclaimed Before trilogy. He paints a fictional daylong narrative in 1989 Chicago, following Barack and Michelle as they navigate through long-winded discussions about life’s obstacles – the good and the bad. This is more than a date movie. Tanne does his best to lay out Barack and Michelle’s personal beliefs, Chicago’s climate, and the sort of challenges that would inevitably propel Barack to his presidency. The outing stems from an invitation to Michelle to attend a community meeting at a South Side church Barack frequents, but quick pit stops at an art exhibit, and park scenery, gradually steer this outing into a bona fide date.

There’s a deep exploration into Barack’s personal life, most notably, his shaky relationship with his late father. He expresses dissatisfaction with his father’s “incomplete” legacy, while explaining the reasons why he operates the way he does. Michelle learns that Barack doesn’t like ice cream after his job at Baskin Robbins, doesn’t remember much of high school due to a “cloudy haze,” and that he deeply cares about the community he’s a part of. Meanwhile, Michelle explains the rationale of working in a white-dominated law firm in lieu of genuine community outreach, and describes the overwhelming hardships of being a black woman in the industry. It takes most of the date for Michelle to truly warm up to Obama’s charm, but when he speaks at the South Side church after funding was denied to start a community recreation center, she basks in his charismatic speech.

Tanne couldn’t have found a better pair than Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter. The two bring real credibility to his story without overselling or impersonating the film’s modern-day subjects. There’s a genuine sense that proper research was done on all parts involved, and while there are a few blatantly fictitious moments throughout, they pale in comparison to Southside With You‘s organic approach. Tanne does an excellent job in drawing parallels between 1989 and today, citing race riots in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and delicately linking it to today’s boiling climate. In a way, he pardons Obama’s unexpected setbacks throughout his presidency, explaining how difficult it can be to get America on the same page. “This is America,” says Obama. “And it’s hard to get things done. We are a collection of states, and the thing to remember is that we all have to stay – united.”

Southside With You is an unexpected hit. There are so many ways this could’ve turned into a forgettable romance, but Tanne and Co. wanted to paint more than a first date. They weaved together small, but pivotal moments in Barack and Michelle’s lives that would forever impact their future marriage and careers.

Photo Credit: State Street Pictures

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Ben Lester

Ben likes movies.