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Can you keep a secret? I haven't heard anyone for a long time until they arrived. They came for help and they broke the rules. I tried to warn them but it was too late. Little did they know. The party is over. Who will survive?
Antonio de la Cruz
The benefit of making a biographical film about a long deceased statesman or woman is we can lionize them at will without having the propensity of sounding political. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Wilson (1944), John Adams (2008) all concerned themselves with figures that were long-gone and if controversy was to be had it was a low murmur at best. On the opposite side of the spectrum there are the maladroit political screeds. Your Iron Lady's (2011) and Primary Color's (1998); movies which are to varying degrees satirical admonishments and ad hominum attacks.
Southside with You covers a third category which is exceedingly rare, especially in today's culture of "kill your Gods". The film takes place over a day in the life of a young Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) and a young Barack Obama (Sawyers) as they go on a first date. During their courtship they take in a community organizing event, an art exhibit, multiple walks through the park and a movie. While doing so they get to know about each other and plow through their insecurities, their family lives and their plans for the future. That's basically it; our first film fictionalization of President Barack Obama is not some big epic nor a under-the-radar satire. No, this film is basically Before Sunrise (1995) without the sexual tension.
As our two leads, Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are dead-ringers to the current occupants of the White House; down to their mannerisms, speech patterns and general way about them. As actors they are both reliably charming, have great chemistry together and evoke sympathy with very little coaxing. I genuinely felt compassion for these characters and the layers of social and emotional pressures they face.
Which is just as well because the script is about as heavy-handed and clunky as a Sunday school sermon. Within the first five minutes we know that we're going to spend our time with interesting people because their resumes were pretty much announced like they were on a dating show. Here's Michelle Robinson who matriculated from Princeton before getting her Junior Doctorates from Harvard Law. Her brother is a basketball coach at Brown and her dad has MS. Young Barack is a young summer associate who is going to Harvard Law and was born in Hawaii. He briefly worked as a Gardens community organizer while going to Columbia and for a young man he's surprisingly well traveled. He likes pie and hates ice cream.
As they get to know each other, the poorly concealed wounds of an absent father and a bi-racial upbringing keep the drama alive though for the most part writer/director Richard Tanne goes through great pains to make Obama look like the patron Saint of Chicago's southside. Granted even terrible people put their best foot forward when on a first date but man this guy lays it on thick. Every time Michelle meets one of his friends they keep nudging her and saying "he's a keeper". She replies "We're not dating," because of course she would. Cue the heartfelt speech about working together and not judging people before you get to know them; and kiss in three, two...
Now apparently a lot of the events of the film are true to life. Barack Obama was a summer associate at the law firm Michelle was working at and Michelle did initially refuse to go on a date with him. They did in-fact see Do the Right Thing (1989) and did in-fact go get Baskin Robbins afterward. Yet if these two characters were purely fictional, chances are you'd be bored out of your mind watching this movie. If ever there was an example of a true story that isn't interesting enough to be a movie, this is clearly it; especially given the "will they or won't they" tension that actually makes movies like these bearable is absent.
Southside with You is an innocent, easily digestible and easily forgettable puff piece on the level of a Teen Beat article asking Sasha who her favorite One Direction member is. That in itself is not the worst thing in the world, but given that the real life Obama is still a lightning rod of controversy, this film is quite the letdown by comparison.
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