Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.
This week, a young Barack Obama woos future first lady Michelle Robinson in Southside With You.
This Is Not a Date
Chicago. Summer. 1989. A smooth-talking law student convinces his reluctant colleague to spend the day with him. They walk. And talk. They see art and catch a movie. You know how their story goes. Richard Tanne’s charming Southside With You reimagines how it all began.
Ok, It’s Not a Date Until You Say It Is
When I first heard that someone was making a movie about Barack and Michelle Obama I said to myself, “that sounds like a terrible idea.” Not because I wasn’t interested (I voted for the former commander-in-chief twice). Mostly because the pair have lived so much of their life in the public eye that I couldn’t imagine there was much of their story left to tell. So I sat transfixed through the opening moments of Southside With You as young Michelle Robinson calmly put herself together for her ‘not a date’ date and Barack puffed away at cigarettes in a disheveled state … all but assuring that he’d be late to pick up his future wife. Seems there was more story to tell after all.
Writer/Director Richard Tanne sets to telling that story by taking a page out of the Richard Linklater Before Trilogy playbook. His Southside With You takes place on a single afternoon as young Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) wander the Southside of Chicago getting to know each other. Getting to know each other outside of work, that is. Seems Michelle was Barack’s advisor at the law firm he was interning at for the summer. And that their ‘first date’ wasn’t supposed to be a date at all. Though Barack is really hoping it will be.
So begins one of the great romances of our time. Southside With You examines this beginning with the nuanced urgency that drives the first moments of a romance. Moments when simple phrases like ‘I think you and I have a lot in common’ carry weight. Your knowledge of Ernie Barnes will impress. And your thoughts on Stevie Wonder can be judged with a certain glee. Those moments when simple conversation is as provocative as anything that might come after.
As the would-be couple walk the streets of Chicago, their conversation becomes the film’s guiding action. In the Tanne’s hands, that conversation is a thrill in its own right. Barack and Michelle talk religion and family. Relationships and aspirations. Fears and desires. Their words are tender and tempered. Often biting and brutal. But the silences between them are as exhilarating as the words themselves. A mutual and credible affection develops in the space between. While Sawyers and Sumpter occasionally stumble through the film’s more verbose scenes, their performances shine in Southside‘s quieter moments. Particularly in the film’s unabashedly romantic final minutes when nary a word is spoken and actions are all that matter.
Tanne captures those actions with an easygoing charm. His film flows from word to word and location to location with a casual sense of credibility. That should come as no surprise as every moment in the film is based on actual events. Tanne & Co. find ample drama in that authenticity. They build it into words and actions, but they never let those actions feel dramatic. The budding romance is potent, but restrained. There’s a political thread running through much of the film (how could there not), but Southside With You is never overtly political. The word is uttered only once. And just in passing. In leaving that particular element out of this romance, Tanne succeeds in making a film about political figures that isn’t consumed by their politics. In doing so, he humanizes his subjects in ways that most political biopics never even dream.
But then we already know their political story. It’s the one that will keep many people from even thinking about watching Southside With You. That’s a shame. But it’s just the state of the world for the moment. Passions have grown beyond passion. People would rather scream than talk. Truth is fluid at best. More often than not it’s irrelevant. And the hope that bloomed over a hot summer day on the Southside feels a lifetime away. Now more than ever, that hope is worth holding on to. Southside With You is a film acutely aware of that. So grab onto it while you can.
You bet. Biopics about political figures are often a mixed bag. But Southside With You isn’t really a political film. It hardly feels like a biopic either. At heart, it’s just a story about a couple of kids who fall in love one day on the Southside of Chicago. It’s a story that transcends the boundaries of politics. And Southside With You is a daring film that builds a compelling fiction out of that story. No, it doesn’t always work. Some of the scenes are heavy-handed and some of the dialogue is quite terrible. But when it does, Southside With You will make you swoon. So drop that dollar this week and start swooning. ‘Cause stories like this one don’t come around too often in the real world. (See current White House residents).