This Is Not a Date: 'Southside With You' Review
Southside With You chronicles the beginning of a relationship that famously continues to this day. The relationship begins one weekend day in 1989 when a law clerk named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), home for the summer from Harvard, asks his legal adviser at the firm, Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) to attend a community activist meeting at a Chicago church. He deliberately arrives early to get her, but she doesn't welcome his quiet advances. He respects her wishes to not call what they're doing a date. She's mainly imterested in the meeting, though she does enjoy the art exhibit they attend before the meeting.
Michelle is interested in what Barack has to say as he addresses a church group dealing with a disappointment. Their motion to get a community center in their neighborhood was denied by the Chicago city council. The young law clerk reminds the group that their pastor has done other things in the hopes that they can still build that center. After the meeting, they talk about where they want to be down the road as they continue their day together.
Southside With You has some factual basis about their first day out of the office together, but writer-director Richard Tanne hasn't really crafted a story here. He has merely created a vignette that lacks any real conflict between its main characters. What's more, we know what has become of them since that day. Tanne's film merely takes viewers back to a day where two young people started to wonder where they'd be in the future, and wondered where their skills and passions could best be served. Tanne does take viewers back to the 1980s, and shows Barack driving an old car with a hole in the floor, while Michelle still lives with her parents as she helps her ailing father whenever she can. Southside With You is simple but enjoyable, even if the movie spells South Side as one word instead of the usual two.
The movie's two leads make a good effort to present themselves as two people learning to be friends. Sumpter, who also has a production credit here, has a stern presence as Michelle, who knows what she wants, and pushes her clerk's buttons to see how he'll react. In one scene, Barack takes the lead on buying lunch, but she objects to one choice to see if he's listening. In a later scene, she wonders what she needs to do to get her work noticed at the firm so she can advance beyond associate. Sawyers is good as young Barack, a man who wants to give a voice to those who don't feel as though they have a say in the affairs that impact them. He turns negatives into positives with the parishoners who voice disappointment, and he puts a positive spin on a pivotal scene in Do The Right Thing with another moviegoer. Sawyers also has a funny scene as he tries to hide his cigarette breath and smell before picking up Michelle.
Politics plays virtually no role in Southside With You, save for the brief conversations about the process. It's about a day that would, in time, change the lives of two people. They weren't in the public spotlight at the time. They harbored thoughts about making names for themselves before they try and find the right someone and start a family. One day, as many learn, can change everything. That day led to a path that would take two young legal professionals from a routine life at a law firm to a residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Southside With You three stars. An ordinary day that ultimately became a little less ordinary.