Strong performances strengthen 'Southside With You' against its political baggage

Posted August 29

"SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU" — 2½ stars — Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Taylar Fondren, Preston Tate Jr.; PG-13 (brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference); in general release

“Southside With You” may mark the first time a sitting American president was featured in a biopic about his love life. Director Richard Tanne’s effort — which is inspired by the events of President Barack Obama’s first date with his future wife, Michelle, in the summer of 1989 — features a pleasant tone and some strong performances but also features a rather obvious donkey in the room.

“Southside With You” is set at a time when the future president (played here by Parker Sawyers) was working at a Chicago law firm between semesters at Harvard Law School. Michelle (Tika Sumpter) was an up-and-coming associate at the firm to which he was assigned.

Barack is clearly interested in Michelle, but she feels that fraternization would be inappropriate. So the future commander in chief uses an upcoming community meeting in South Chicago as a way to trick her into going on a date with him.

The body of the film, which Tanne constructs and embellishes around the details of that first date, lets the audience play fly on the wall while the future president uses charm, wit and reason to wear down Michelle’s defenses. They visit an art museum. They eat sandwiches. They attend the meeting, where Barack delivers a rousing speech about community organizing. And despite a setback or two, Michelle sticks it out for dinner and a movie (Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”).

The finished product is an odd kind of biography-documentary hybrid, where Tanne uses the Obamas’ lengthy getting-to-know-you conversations to provide exposition, insight and discussion of topics from race to religion to Stevie Wonder’s best album. There’s a thoughtful tone all the way through, but the rosy-eyed perspective of “Southside With You” feels like it has some propaganda hiding under the surface, if only because its subject is still in office.

The film’s biggest strength is the quality of its leads, and both Sawyers and Sumpter provide effective portrayals of their characters that feel genuine and natural. The chemistry between them keeps the story intact even when it starts to waver.

But as you might imagine, the biggest weakness of "Southside With You" is its political baggage. It doesn’t take much effort to detect the political sentiments at work, and most audiences will probably react in kind. Whether it’s Michelle Obama dividing her co-workers into two categories — “liberal” and “close-minded” — or Tanne highlighting an especially provocative scene at the end of “Do the Right Thing,” audiences will likely project their own politics on the film.

A lot of this burden has to be placed on the director, who took a liberal interpretation of the date’s events — the real community meeting didn’t happen until much later, even though it is the focal point of the film — and didn’t seek much input from his subjects, according to an article on variety.com. But if the project was merely to be thought-provoking, “Southside With You” succeeds if only because the audience knows what is to come.

“Southside With You” is more than a carefree portrait of young love, but how much more may depend on your ability to keep your political perspectives at arm’s length.

"Southside With You" is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference; running time: 84 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.


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