"Barack O-whatta?" That is the only too-cute-by-half line in Southside with You, the feature debut by writer-director Richard Tanne. Spoken by Fraser Robinson (Phillip Edward Van Lear) to his daughter, Michelle (Tika Sumpter), the father is trying to grasp the name of the man with whom Michelle intends to spend the day. She is a young corporate lawyer who lives in the south side of Chicago with her parents and she has been tasked to be the mentor of none other than Barack Obama, a summer intern who comes highly recommended, due to his recent graduation from Harvard law school. Michelle looks her best, not because it's a date, but because "it's nice to always look good."
Barack (Parker Sawyers), on the other hand, is smoking a cigarette in his small apartment, reading a novel by Toni Morrison and sitting in a tank top. He's a more laid-back sort, a man who exudes confidence even without an audience. He realizes he's late to his day out with Michelle (it's a date to him, not to her), a fact that doesn't seem to bother him much. He arrives at Michelle's doorstep, only to find the young woman emerging from the backyard and the side of the house. We never really use the front door, do we? That's a fact that Hollywood tends to ignore.
Tanne's not working within the Hollywood studio system here; that attention to detail is one of the first signs that this isn't a film intended to break the box office. The mere fact that the presence of the future United States President and First Lady is required in order for a movie about two black people walking and talking to exist tells you how much Southside with You doesn't play by typical big-budget rules. Not that Tanne isn't working out of a well-worn box of tropes: Richard Linklater could be forgiven for launching a copyright infringement lawsuit on behalf of his Before trilogy if he weren't so damn impressed with this movie. That series is so influential that one of the stars, Julie Delpy, went on to direct her own walking-and-talking-for-a-day(s) films, the 2 Days In... diptych.
One of the primary ways Tanne's film intersects with its forbears is its disinterest in plot. We have a (not-a-) date, the ultimate goal of which is a neighborhood meeting to discuss ways to improve. Barack and Michelle align in their shared love of community organization and their current employment by a soulless, profit-oriented firm. The meeting provides its own charms as a setpiece in and of itself, but we also get to see the ways in which the pair budges up against the other. Barack borders on arrogant, quick to judge his own family and Michelle, while she is stubborn and doesn't given him the benefit of the doubt, fearing (understandably) that she will be pigeon-holed as a silly black woman at her job for dating the first "cute black man to walk through the door" (to which Barack rejoins, "So you think I'm cute?" Well played, Mr. President.)
There is also the factor of the blackness of the film itself. Although Tanne himself is white, almost everyone onscreen is black, except, significantly, one couple in particular, whose identity I won’t spoil. The film does take place on the south side of Chicago, after all, an area of the city that has stayed relatively unchanged since the film’s 1989 setting, for better (strong racial identity!) or for worse (rampant crime L). Barack is “hapa” (the Hawaiian term for “mixed”), which the film delves into vis-à-vis Michelle’s relative inexperience with men compared to Barack’s dabbling with both white and black women. But it is also concerned about the divide between the pair’s success in the world compared to the struggling community in which they’ve chosen to begin their careers—ironically, at a predominantly white and wealthy firm. The couple even goes to see a certain monumental film by Spike Lee, also set on a very hot day (it’s sweltering in summer-time Chi), and then are forced to assuage the bruised, confused egos of the only white people in the city who saw the film and disagreed with its incendiary ending. Linklater never was required to make films that go beyond the white experience (write what you know and all that), but his casts never felt so alabaster than after seeing an homage from the point of view of people of color.
To be sure, Southside with You presents an overall favorable portrayal of the future Mr. and Mrs. Obama, save for some unsavory chain-smoking on the part of Barack. Through Sawyers and Sumpters’ performances, you can see the germs of the lauded, powerful couple they would go on to be. Neither of them is exactly a dead ringer for their real-life counterpart, but they both admirably capture the poise, intelligence and approachability of the Obamas. Both actors are given the space to shine in the film, a choice that is all the more welcome given the tendency of First Ladies to be shunted to the side in cinema (Sally Field did her best to give an honest performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, but Spielberg’s film did her no favors). Southside with You also dodges accusations of hagiography, mostly because we’re given only one day to see what these two people were like in their youth. Sure, it’s a particularly fascinating moment in their lives, but Tanne gives us a sense of them only as humans; there’s no hagio to graph.
At the end of the Obama presidency, it’s refreshing that we’re given a small film to remind us of the individuals who occupied the White House for the last eight years. In contrast, we were given the sketchy life story of the previous president in the form of Oliver Stone’s W., a film that is admirable in many ways but overreaches beyond its grasp (you know, like every film by Stone). Tanne was an excellent choice to tell this story. The film has made well above its meager $1.5 million budget, so I am confident we will see more from him in the future.