The first laugh in Southside with You is a close-up of a cigarette in a man’s hand. We laugh because we know this movie is about the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, and we recognize this close-up as a droll joke about the 44th POTUS and his curiously stubborn—curious, that is, for someone famously in control—bad habit. The cigarette indeed belongs to the young law student Obama, seen here on a warm summer day in 1989 as he prepares to meet his co-worker (who’s also his superior) for an outing.
This early moment in Southside with You, and the assumption that the audience is in on the joke, indicates both the film’s strength and weakness. Nobody can experience this movie as merely a pleasant portrait of two young African-Americans on the town; we know who they are—or who they will be—and we see the film through that historical prism. The movie repeatedly confirms that the young Obamas were extremely smart, deeply committed people. It’s like an extended version of a convention video, crafted to please the faithful and maybe haul in a few uncommitteds.
Writer/director Richard Tanne appears to be inspired by Richard Linklater’s strategy in the Before trilogy: This film unfolds as an ongoing conversation, spread across a single long day in Chicago. We watch Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) as they prepare for their outing, which is not officially a date, although the film makes it clear that brash young Mr. Obama hopes it will be. (Tanne does that old-movie thing where the guy keeps insisting it’s a date, while the woman keeps saying no, a strangely outdated trope.) Barack wheedles Michelle into stopping at an art gallery before they make their way to a community meeting (the ostensible reason for their day out); she is skeptical, because she knows this move. But they go, and he shows off his appreciation for African-American painting, as a young man trying to impress a young woman might. Sumpter and Sawyers are excellent in these scenes, wittily catching their characters’ mannerisms without tipping over into impersonation.
The movie works to keep it street-level: The two get Baskin-Robbins and catch a late showing of Do the Right Thing. We see that Barack—who drives a used Datsun with a hole in the floor—has a touch of the pick-up artist, and we appreciate Michelle’s wariness. Her concern about how a connection between two co-workers will be viewed by her law firm (where she already stands out for being a woman and black) is a universal worry, not something tied to the destined-for-greatness context. It’s difficult to keep it real in a Famous Person movie. (Watching the new Ben-Hur, it’s hard not to groan when the bearded carpenter in the background of a scene suddenly begins speaking in lofty terms of peace and brotherhood, and we remember—like a hammer on the head, we remember—that Ben-Hur is subtitled A Tale of the Christ.)
Tanne is better than that, for sure. He saves his people-of-destiny surge for the community meeting, where the casual Obama we’ve been watching flirt for the previous half-hour gets in front of an embattled community and coolly, smoothly, no-sweatly morphs into an inspirational figure of uncommon stature. (The actual community meeting might have happened on a later date, so various liberties have been taken.) The way Tanne allows the scene to sneak up and impress you is not only consistent with his overall design for the movie, it also seems appropriate for Obama’s own rhetorical method, which uses the slow build to make a complicated argument.
This laid-back approach is interesting (as opposed to a more action-oriented film like the JFK war story PT 109, also released during the subject’s presidential term) but not necessarily compelling; I kept wondering whether this slip of a film would hold up if it weren’t about people whose future significance we knew. I think it probably wouldn’t, but we’ll never know.
Southside With You. Rated PG-13. Out in multiple theaters Fri., Aug. 26.