It takes a brave director to make a romantic bio-pic featuring a current US President and First Lady. Unless you come from another planet it is impossible to view Southside with You (2016) outside the realm of contemporary politics. Although the summer of 1989 is a long way from the events of 2016, the story of Barack and Michelle’s first time out together will be seen by many through their own political lens. Its release in the middle of a Presidential election environment was guaranteed to polarise opinion.
The simple storyline is based on one afternoon in which little happens except non-stop conversation and loads of interpersonal chemistry. Barack (Parker Sawyers) is an intern at a corporate law firm finishing his studies and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is his advisor who aspires to senior lawyer ranks. They plan to spend the afternoon getting to know one another for professional reasons. As his senior, she is cutely overbearing when she snaps “you are late” while Barack’s unflappable charm disarms her every time. These are not idle lovers but world leaders in the making; their conversation ranges from Aristotelian and to simply being two love birds circling each other in a timeless ritual – and the tension is delightful. At one point Barack gently chides Michelle for planning to become a law partner, asking her how she reconciles her social conscience with the profit-driven corporate world: the cut bleeds long into the afternoon. After a gallery visit so Barack can show off his knowledge of art they attend a public meeting where he demonstrates a gift for oratory that even in this modest setting Is as inspirational as it is emotionally manipulative.
This is a thoughtfully constructed, well-acted, and thoroughly charming film. Parker Sawyers carries off the role convincingly with uncanny resemblance to Barack’s mannerisms and style of speech. Tika Sumpter plays a restrained and serious Michelle with glimpses of warmth beneath the facade of a ‘professional date’. She is no pushover but a person with an assertive feminist intellect who has found her match. Far from being a soft romantic comedy, this film is a private look into a rarefied world in which intellectual sparring constitutes courtship behaviour.
Hagiography is a style of cinema that places its subject on a pedestal with little interrogation and this is happening here. The film might have benefited from some less adoring insights into a future president and the script is a little strained at times, but these are mere quibbles. This is a warm, intelligent, well told story about two people who became a global power-couple in celebrity politics.
Director: Richard Tanne
Stars: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers