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Eye rolls are likely when a filmmaker treats the subject of his biopic with worship. Add in another pedestal’d character, and the “oh please” factor ratchets up. And when both of them, people we now know would go on to make history, are put on display as idealized youths? Such hagiography is nearly unbearable.
From its very title to its closing credits, Southside With You was destined for at least minor cheesiness. Occasionally sweet and inarguably slight, first-time writer-director Richard Tanne’s film fictionalizes the inaugural date of President Barack Obama and his first lady, then Michelle Robinson. The afternoon-to-evening outing between the law-firm advisor (Tika Sumpter) and her underling (Parker Sawyers) starts out with—or is supposed to start out with—a community meeting to which Barack invited Michelle. She therefore insists to her parents that she’s not going on a date with the “smooth-talkin’ brother”—they’re just two associates indulging their mutual desire to “make a difference.”
Except: This part of their get-together is a product of Tanne’s imagination, one upon which the whole premise of the story lies. Barack is shown to be a bit of an aggressive jackass: He gives Michelle the wrong time for the meeting, picking her up earlier (well, officially he’s late) and suggesting they visit an art installation and grab a bite to eat to kill time. The ruse doesn’t sit well with his superior, who repeatedly explains to him that as a black female in a predominantly white male profession, she has to work three times as hard to be taken seriously, and she doesn’t want to jeopardize that by fraternizing with her underling. Though Michelle relents, her mantra throughout the day is a stern, “This is not a date.”
But all the art! And wonder! And poetry! (yes, Barack recites not only a poem, but one of Michelle’s favorites) apparently gets under her skin in a good way, and even though their not-a-date follows the highs and nearly brake-applying lows of a long day getting to know another person, it’s no spoiler to say that they both end the evening with a smile.
The smartest choice that Sumpter and Sawyers make is to eschew mimicry. Sawyers is more of a physical and vocal match, and he does get a “Listen…” in during Barack’s too-pretty speech at the community meeting. (Obvious musical cues deepen the scene’s alleged heart-flutteringness.) Sumpter, meanwhile, only resembles Michelle in the eyebrows (though it’s a pretty damn good match). The script, of course, foreshadows the pair’s future, ruminating on the issues facing Chicago’s poor black communities and their hope to make an impact on them. “Maybe I could write books,” Barack says. “Politics?” Michelle counters. “Maybe.”
Each of the characters, however, are unlikable at some point: Barack in his refusal to accept Michelle’s boundaries, and Michelle in her general contrarian stance to the entire day. (“You’re asking a lot of questions,” she tells him in response to a completely innocent one.) And some of the dialogue is wince-inducing. When Michelle interprets something Barack says as suggesting she’s wasting her life, she says, “You didn’t have to use those words. You used other ones, and they stung just as much!” Or when they finally go off-career-topic to talk about personal interests, she says, “At least we can agree that Stevie [Wonder] is the best. At least, we can start from there.” Finally, an olive branch!
Even with Southside clocking in at a mere 84 minutes, Tanne unnecessarily elongates the ending, passing up a perfect moment to fin in order to make sure that we understand that these two kids might hit it off after all. But even though the audience knows how this story ends up, the film does little to shed light on how it truthfully started.
Southside With You opens today at Landmark Bethesda Row, Landmark Atlantic Plumbing, and Angelika Film Center.