Southside With You review: When Barack met Michelle

The cutsey-pie mingles with the intellectual in this fawning but clever depiction of the First Couple’s first date

Southside With You
    
Director: Richard Tanne
Cert: 12A
Genre: Romance
Starring: Parker Sawyers, Tika Sumpter, Vanessa Bell Calloway
Running Time: 1 hr 25 mins

This is an odd project. There have been quick-draw films – notably Primary Colours and Oliver Stone's W – about presidencies before. But Portraits of the President as a Young Man are a rarer beast. There was, moreover, a respectable gap between Abraham Lincoln's youth and John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln (1939).

President Barack Obama has yet to leave the White House and we already have a sub-genre: Barry, which dramatises young Barack's time as a college student in New York City, recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

Southside With You, meanwhile, plays almost like a superhero genesis story. Or rather a Mr and Mrs Superhero origins tale.

It’s impossible not to watch Richard Tanne’s fawning, fictionalised depiction of young Barack Obama’s first date with future wife Michelle Robinson without half-thinking that it has to be counterpropaganda from the darkest innards of Camp Trump.


The details of the occasion are largely drawn from Obama's account in his memoir The Audacity of Hope, and the programme of events – a trip to an Ernie Barnes museum exhibit, a viewing of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, a community hall meeting, where Barack gives a rousing speech – could not seem more carefully calibrated to showcase Mr Obama's virtues.

What's surprising and pleasing about this presidential Before Sunrise is that Richard Tanne's clever script is simultaneously cutesy-pie and intellectual. Michelle, black female professional who wants to be more than a minority statistic, is the hold-out in the will-they-won't-they two-step. It speaks to Tika Sumpter's (Gossip Girl, Ride Along) charisma, that her Michelle is effortlessly likeable, despite chunks of exposition and repeated rebuffs.

Parker Sawyers, meanwhile, provides an uncanny approximation of Obama’s smooth, booming voice and that sometimes halting delivery. First-time writer-director Tanne bathes his hero in light and frames him heroically as they talk-and-talk us through the essential biographical details: she’s from Chicago’s southside, he’s from Hawaii and Indonesia; he’s studying at Harvard Law; she has already graduated; her father has multiple sclerosis; his was an alcoholic.

The duo make for good company but the courtship can only just sustain the weight of history. We’re often left to marvel at the Man He Will Become rather than his potential as a suitor. Entertaining hagiography, nonetheless

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic