'Southside with You' handles love, politics gracefully
Making a film about Barack Obama during his presidency is a bold move. Premiering that film only a few short months before the 2016 election — well, that’s just downright audacious. Releasing “Southside with You” during the current political climate is bound to stir up strong responses, so all I will say is this: I will try my hardest to keep my personal politics out of this review, but I also acknowledge that there are people who will dislike the mere idea of this film no matter what I say. And that’s fine, because for the rest of us, “Southside with You” has a whole lot to offer.
This may well be the simplest premise to summarize of any movie I’ve reviewed yet. The film tells the story of Michelle Robinson’s (Tika Sumpter) first date with Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). On its own, that idea might sound like a gimmick, yet based on the advertising I felt fairly confident that I would enjoy this film. Thankfully, I did, though what I experienced was also not quite what I expected. It would have been so easy to make “Southside with You” a standard romantic comedy with the only exceptional aspect being that it’s about two of the most powerful people in the world, but Richard Tanne’s screenplay is far too intelligent to take the easy road. He clearly drew a great deal of inspiration from Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995) and, like Linklater’s romantic classic, “Southside with You” seems to appreciate the spoken word above all else. Tanne understands the power of simple, direct and moving dialogue, but he also understands the power of silence, and it is this quality which ultimately gives “Southside with You” a far more mature, and even melancholic, tone than other films of its kind. One of the film’s best scenes takes place in an art museum, in which Tanne’s camera lingers on evocative art while compelling dialogue occasionally breaks the silence. The effect was simple but profound.
Sumpter and Sawyers have to carry the entire runtime of this film on their backs, but they never show any sign of the strain. Both actors wisely decide not to try too hard to impersonate their real world counterpart, probably because they realize how distracting that would be. Instead, they find a way to capture the essence of these two well-known figures. Sumpter embodies the intelligence, wit and drive of Michelle while Sawyers effortlessly portrays the more laid-back yet equally motivated Barack. The film portrays both of them as flawed but also as essentially decent human beings who always want to do the right thing even if they don’t always know what the right thing is.
The film’s approach to the inevitable political side of its story is actually one of its most brilliant aspects. Too often politicians seem to argue about specific political issues in a vacuum without a grounded real world basis. “Southside with You” finds a way to show that real world basis without becoming overtly partisan. One speech in particular shows the foundation for many of the basic ideas that the Obamas support, but it does so without trying to alienate right-leaning viewers. Instead it tries to get all audience members to relate to the struggles that both of these characters have faced, especially institutional racism. This approach is ambitious, but Tanne finds a way to pull it off. If the film does have one flaw, it is that it can sometimes be a little too on the nose. At one point Michelle asks Barack if he is interested in becoming a politician, and he responds “Maybe.” You can almost feel the writer winking to the audience in moments like these.
I have no idea if the director and the studio planned for “Southside with You” to be released during the middle of the most divisive presidential election in memory, but to ignore the perfect timing would be to turn a blind eye to perhaps the film’s most praiseworthy attribute. While Tanne clearly views Barack and Michelle Obama in a highly favorable light, he also uses the aforementioned speech to remind the audience that we are all basically decent people who happen to have different agendas, which is why it is our job to compromise and empathize so that we can “keep these states united” (the film’s words, not mine).
As the divide between our political parties appears to be growing wider and wider, Tanne encourages us to come together and listen to each other’s narratives. These are all relatively simple ideas, but they are also extremely important ones, and, just like this film, they might be exactly what we need right now.