Richard Tanne’s Southside with You is a romantic drama in the mold of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, with two characters walking and talking throughout a city, getting to know each other, flirting, verbally parrying, and generally dancing around the topic of romance until, finally, a physical gesture seals the deal. The crucial difference is that the two main characters here are destined for a unique sort of greatness, as the film is a speculative dramatization of the first date between a future president of the United States, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), and his first lady, Michelle Obama (Tika Sumpter). The film, then, exudes an aura of political fan fiction at the outset, as a conventional romance is given potentially unearned heft simply because of the heavy import of the based-on-true-life characters involved.
But Tanne has more on his mind than simply delivering swoon-worthy genre pleasures. Naturally, for a film as dialogue-heavy as this, these intentions are made evident in the words Barack and Michelle exchange. There turns out to be a reason why Michelle is reluctant to commit to this being a date, despite Barack’s clear intentions in that direction: She’s deeply conscious of her status as an up-and-coming female black lawyer, which puts her at an immediate disadvantage, she feels, compared to the male associate she’s advising who’s now propositioning her for romance.
Southside with You may not announce itself as hagiography, but it’s hero-worshipful to its core.
With the zeal of two talented lawyers arguing their cases, Barack challenges Michelle on her assumptions and anxieties, while she prods him on his own past as a pothead in high school and his lingering resentment toward his late father, who was mostly absent throughout Barack’s life. This kind of conversation distinguishes itself from the relatively more insular talk between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters in Before Sunrise, which, despite occasional ventures toward the philosophical, rarely betrayed the kind of broader social consciousness that Barack and Michelle exude in this film.
But though it’s tempting to ignore the real-life importance of Southside with You’s characters and take them as ordinary people who fall in love, Tanne does have a political point to make. The key to the film’s politics lies in a lengthy scene in which Barack takes Michelle to a community meeting. Part of the reason for this is to impress her with his oratory skills and activist commitment. But during his speech, in which the future president’s command of public speaking is already blazingly evident, he also indirectly refers to a tense exchange between he and Michelle on the way to the meeting, in which Michelle takes offense at Barack’s tacit disapproval of what he views as her putting aside her passion for social activism for the sake of increasing her profile in the legal field. “We have to let go of judgment,” he implores his brothers and sisters at the meeting, thus secretly indicating to Michelle that he’s taken to heart her earlier castigating words.
It’s a crucial scene not just in terms of the film’s conception of Barack Obama as a somewhat callow young man who was, to some extent, schooled in the complexities of the world while trying to woo the woman who would become his wife, but in revealing Tanne’s perspective on its subject. Southside with You may not announce itself as hagiography, but it’s hero-worshipful to its core. For all its charms, including a climactic first kiss that comes as a result of Barack and Michelle sharing some ice cream, the film is a preaching-to-the-choir celebration of Barack Obama and all that he represents. It’s a sweet work that doesn’t add anything insightful to our understanding of these real-life figures beyond affirming their radiant public images.