What It’s About: Twenty-seven years ago in Chicago, Harvard Law student Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) asked corporate attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) to a community meeting when he was working as a summer associate at Sidley Austin. Their day-into-night date is imagined in the sweet “Southside with You.”
This amiable, gentle romance would be an intriguing slice-of-life tale even if the couple were not the future president and his accomplished wife, but that adds to this origins story.
Writer-director Richard Tanne smartly draws on family background, their academic achievements, and what we know about their goals and dreams to craft conversation that seems natural, not forced at all.
Forget about politics for 84 minutes, and enjoy watching two Ivy League-educated, charismatic, compassionate Africa-Americans come together as colleagues.
Despite a few nerves and attempts to impress, they find common ground that day that leads to something more.
We know their life partnership is still going very strong, and that familiarity brings out a few knowing smiles, not to mention a couple winks and nudges.
Eventually, Obama and Robinson married in 1992, had two daughters Malia and Sasha, blazed trails in Chicago and Illinois politics, made history in 2008 as the 44th U.S. President and First Lady, and in January, will leave the White House after eight years.
The day unfolds from their modest residences to her first declaration “This is not a date” — because she is his supervisor that summer — through an Ernie Barnes painting exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, a quick picnic lunch, the community meeting in a church near the Altged Gardens housing projects, taking in Spike Lee’s movie “Do the Right Thing,” and a stop for ice cream before calling it a night.
The long, eventful day brings out their personalities and aspirations, and it’s lovely to see them as bright, hopeful young 20-somethings who want to make a difference in the world.
Performances: Sawyers (“Zero Dark Thirty”) is easily believable as the tall, thin 27-year-old Obama, who drives a beat-up Nissan Sentra with a rotted-out passenger sidefloorboard and smokes cigarettes seemingly non-stop.
He captures Obama’s confidence, his ease connecting to all kinds of people, and his commitment as a former Development Communities Project coordinator to Chicago’s under-served neighborhoods.
At the community meeting, his burgeoning oratorical skills and ability to bring people together are on full display — with Michelle taking note.
However, Obama is not presented as a golden boy — his troubled youth and feelings of being an outsider because of his parents’ mixed marriage is brought out.
Sumpter (“Ride Along”) smartly portrays Robinson as a loving, loyal daughter from a working-class family who learned early on that education would be a steppingstone to a better life.
As a determined, strong woman, she is always mindful of professional decorum — and you instantly like how she interacts with the rock-sta-in-the-making. We also identify with her shifting emotions throughout the day.
What Works: The rhythms of Chicago’s south neighborhoods on a hot summer day in 1989 are aptly captured by cinematographer Patrick Scola, and the music score by Stephen James Taylor and soundtrack enhances the day-in-the-life experience.
Executive producer John Legend contributed a captivating song over the end credits, “Start,” which superbly describes a first date.
What Doesn’t Work: While based on a true story, Tanne’s script has taken liberties and fictionalized portions. So don’t expect total reality.
While it’s mostly fun to be a fly on the wall for this major life happening, sometimes it does feel like too much intimate information about the future Nobel Peace Prize winner and two-time Time Magazine Person of the Year.
But those qualms are brief because of the charming performances and engaging storytelling.
“Southside With You”
- Director: Richard Tanne
- Starring: Parker Sawyers, Tika Sumpter
- Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference
- Length: 1:24