Southside with You (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): One day of Barack and Michelle in Chicago

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“Southside with You” is a small, humble drama about one day experienced by two people who would become one of the most famous couples in the world. I had no idea on how much the movie is close to what actually happened between them on that supposedly lovely day in Chicago, but it works thanks to its smart screenplay and two likable lead performances, and you will have no problem with enjoying it even if you are not so familiar with their early years. As the movie vividly presents them as engaging three-dimensional characters with humanity and personality, we are frequently amused by their genuine human interactions, and then we are reminded of the remarkable future ahead of them as their day is being over.

It is the summer of 1989 in Chicago, and the opening sequence of the movie shows how Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) begin that day respectively. Barack is a summer associate at a Chicago law firm where Michelle is a second-year associate, and she has been his advisor since his first day at the law firm. While she agreed to spend a day with him, she makes it clear to her parents that this is not a date, but then we cannot help but notice how much she tries to look good before leaving her family house.

In case of Barack, he looks relatively more relaxed as a confident, good-looking guy who can easily give you favorable impression within minutes. We see him casually beginning the day with smoking a cigarette, and we cannot help but amused by how shabby his car looks as he goes out to pick up Michelle. There is no serious problem with driving it, but it looks quite old and tattered to say the least, and the hole in the floor certainly draws Michelle’s attention when she gets into his car.

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Although Michelle keeps emphasizing that this is not a date (it becomes a sort of running gag throughout the first half of the movie), Barack suggests that they should spend some time together before attending a community meeting to be held in a neighborhood of the South Side area in Chicago, so they go to an art exhibition held at the Chicago Cultural Center, which was one of my favorite places during my visit to Chicago in 2010 April. At one point during the scene where they look around the exhibited paintings of Ernie Barnes and then talk a bit about Barnes’ striking artworks, the camera looks up to one of those big, beautiful glass domes in the building which I still remember well, and I must tell you that I became a little nostalgic during that brief moment.

When Barack mentions a previous case she handled, Michelle points out how difficult it is for her to deal with the obstacles at her workplace. As a female employee, she must work harder to prove herself to her male senior partners, and, not so surprisingly, her race is another handicap she has to overcome. She is demanded to do a lot as she expected, but she is usually underestimated and overlooked, and she knows well that dating Barack may negatively affect her position in the law firm.

As they get to know more about each other, Barack and Michelle come to see more of how much they are different from each other (he does not like ice cream while she does not like pie, for example), but Michelle finds herself attracted to Barack as he approaches closer to her, and she is surely impressed by how he smoothly handles a difficult matter at the community meeting. Although he intended to woo her right from the beginning, Barack comes to like Michelle more than before, and there is a lovely scene when he watches her participating in an impromptu dance driven by African music.

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Leisurely focusing on small moments between them, the movie is naturally reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy in many aspects. The dialogues in the screenplay by the director Richard Tanne feel spontaneous and intelligent, and his lead performers Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers embody their respective roles without any self-conscious tone. Sumpter gives a warm, amiable performance while never neglecting her character’s inner strength, and it is a pleasure to watch how her performance gradually becomes the heart of the movie. On the opposite, Sawyers effectively complements his co-star with his equally well-rounded performance, and he ably exudes his character’s undeniable charm and charisma as required, especially when his character shrewdly persuades disgruntled community members step by step through common sense and empathy.

I also enjoyed some amusing period details in the movie including Spike Lee’s great film “Do the Right Thing” (1989), which Michelle and Barack watch at a downtown theater later in the story. While many black audiences around Michelle and Barack cheer and applaud when Mookie, the pizza delivery hero of the movie, throws a trash can into his employer’s shop, Michelle’s senior associate, who happens to watch the movie at the same time, feels uncomfortable with that moment, and this leads to one of the most humorous moments as Barack gives the guy a comfortable false explanation.

If you expect anything political or historical from “Southside with You”, you may be disappointed with what it intends to do, but its priority is presenting a vivid depiction of two smart, interesting human beings interacting with each other. It did its job quite well while entertaining us with humor and human intimacy, and its good story indirectly reminds us of how much they have achieved since that point. It has been pretty good for us with this wonderful couple living in the White House, hasn’t it?

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