On a day like any other in Chicago, 1989, two young people on the cusp of true adulthood found themselves together on an afternoon that would change both their lives in ways neither one could have possibly known. Their names were Michelle Robinson and Barack “Barry” Obama. This story really happened, though writer-director Richard Tanne has taken a few creative liberties with his big screen adaptation, Southside With You.
Perhaps the best way to summarize the first date of the 47th president of the United States and the First Lady is to say it was not that unlike a date you have probably been on. There was a park, a museum, ice cream, top 40 songs on the radio, and most of all, conversation. Tanne is masterful wordsmith, bringing Barack and Michelle to life through personal revelations of family and dreams. It’s not about who these two will become, but who they are in the moment. Tanne writes with a careful precision that recognizes the future outcome we all know without leaning into it. For him, and as a result, us, these are just two young people searching for something greater than what they currently have in life. Maybe that something lies in one another, or maybe it does not. They don’t know.
The beauty of Southside With You is just how quickly Barack and Michelle become any two people in the world. Tanne’s writing gets partial credit for this, but the majority of the work falls on stars Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. Both fast-rising stars in their own right, the pair’s chemistry is palpable from the moment their eyes first meet. The unspoken dialogue they share in glances and ever-so-slight hesitation speaks volumes in even the most seemingly average moments, urging you to root for their love before they see the connection for themselves. Sumpter in particular is wonderful, stepping into the shoes of Michelle with a sense of confidence that everyone on screen and off cannot ignore. She holds the position of power throughout the film, but Sumpter never presents Michelle as knowing this to be true. Like Barack, she is looking to the future with wide-eyed imagination while fully acknowledging her current status.
It could be argued that a film like Southside With You lacks tension due to the audience already knowing the fate of those at the center of the story, but it’s hard to imagine anyone walking into a film like this expecting to be shocked. The only alarming reveal found in this film is how human the two most powerful people in America are, and even that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. This is a film about love, and how everyone experiences the discovery of new love in a similar way, regardless of where their lives may lead.
Southside With You is a perfect love story, not to mention the most romantic film of the year. From the opening scenes to the final frames viewers will be enthralled by the romance and conversation that fill every moment. The chemistry between Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers is unmistakable, and though we know where things will eventually lead, one cannot help rooting for the characters themselves to realize their love for one another. Richard Tanne has found a way to capture the powerful sensation that is young love and share it with the world without being heavy-handed or at all predictable. To say I never wanted it to end would be an understatement.
You can find a feature on ‘Southside With You’ and interview with writer-director Richard Tanne in issue #53 of Substream Magazine, on sale now!