It’s 1989, and in Chicago a young chain-smoking Harvard Law student is on a date with ambitious lawyer Michelle Robinson. The catch is that only Barack Obama (for it is he!) considers it a date: Michelle was under the impression that their meeting was strictly professional, and is disgruntled to find out that her company’s fellow has organised a full day of getting-to-know-you activities.
This is a good straightforward romcom setup, of course, but it’s necessarily complicated by racial politics. Michelle carefully explains her reluctance to entertain Barack’s overtures: she risks imperilling her future at her almost-entirely-white law firm if she’s seen ‘dating the first cute black guy who walks through the firm’s doors’. It’s nothing personal, she assures her suitor.
And neither is the film itself, really. It’s less of a date movie than a political movie, and the fact that this comes as a surprise says a lot about how emotionally the Obama’s have been embraced by their supporters. Tanne doesn’t cater much to this fan-base, or try to imagine how these two public figures would really conduct themselves in relative privacy; he uses their pseudo-date as a vehicle for a discussion about the future and past of American politics. It’s a compelling discussion, and one that comes at an important time, so it hardly matters that it probably didn’t 'actually' happen in such a compelling Linklater-esque way.
Parker Sawyers looks remarkably like Barack, and does a great POTUS impression, but an impression is all it is – it’s a little too reliant on footage of presidential speeches to be a real performance. For a young man trying to impress a beautiful woman, Sawyers’ Obama is awfully statesmanlike, delivering cheeky quips with the smooth rhetoric with which he’ll later negotiate trade deals.
Tika Sumpter does better on this front, in part because she doesn’t look a distracting amount like Michelle. She owns the role, and manages to make her future First Lady sceptical and deflating without being shrewish. But the chemistry and credibleness of the film’s leads remains secondary to the ideas tossed back and forth in their increasingly affectionate banter.
Southside with You is not an entirely cerebral movie. There’s a lovely moment when Barack and Michelle visit an art gallery, and for half a second the camera takes in a sculpture that foreshadows the celebratory fist-bump they shared in 2008, a moment that Barack has said symbolises what he loves about his wife. It's just enough to sweeten this dry, smart film.
|What||Southside with You film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
23 Sep 16 – 23 Nov 16, Times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more details|