For an hour and a half, this film immerses you in another time. It transports us to a hot summer afternoon in 1989 when a young Barack Obama took his future wife Michelle for a day out in Chicago and tried to sweep the feisty lawyer off her feet. And like a great first date, it sends you out into the night with a heart full of hope. Southside With You reminds us that movie magic doesn’t just lie in otherworldly spectacles and explosive adventures; sparks can also fly in simple conversations between ordinary people.
At first, Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) insists that the outing with Barack (Parker Sawyers) is not a date. After all, she is his adviser at the law firm where they work, and a romantic connection would be out of the question. But, of course, he slowly wins her over, washing away any sense of cynicism and wrapping her up in warm optimism.
Sawyers casts a spell on the audience, making us forget we are watching a movie as he transforms into Obama. During one scene at a community meeting, he emerges as a mirror image of the inspirational speaker. Together, Sawyers and writer-director Richard Tanne elegantly emulate Obama’s way with words: the grand, sweeping statements; the intimate, emotional pauses; the down-to-earth yet also larger-than-life manner of speaking.
Southside With You isn’t just a crystal ball look at history in the making. It’s fun to peek into the past and figure out how Barack and Michelle became who they are today, but these characters also exude a timeless, universal appeal. Long before he ran for president, Barack was an ambitious law firm associate trying to succeed where his reckless, alcoholic father failed. And before she met him, Michelle was a lawyer working rigorously to rise through the ranks of a white, male-dominated world. Sumpter makes you feel the pressure of Michelle’s pursuit. These are two of the best performances of the year — portraits of iconic people that always feel raw, honest and achingly real. Sawyers and Sumpter share an electrifying chemistry, and you’ll fall in love with both of them, regardless of how you feel about the Obamas.
The film strives to show how Barack and Michelle are compelling outside of their current political identities. It’s a simultaneously timely and ageless story. Love, of course, is a tale as old as time. And like politics, love is about bridging gaps between people and finding common ground in the midst of difference. But it’s not about denying the differences that lie along our paths. It’s about seeing them with empathetic eyes.
Southside With You is a story of opposites attracting. It’s an exploration of two very different people who stopped stubbornly clashing with each other and started seeing themselves through a sympathetic lens. It’s simply beautiful — a hopeful, heartfelt film in a political year filled with hatred. Like love, this movie will sneak up and floor you.