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With: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy
Written by: Richard Tanne
Directed by: Richard Tanne
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference
Running Time: 84
Date: 08/26/2016

Southside with You (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Past and the President

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Half of the population of the United States won't bother seeing Southside with You, but the other half is in for a surprisingly delightful little treat. It takes place over a single day, a date between a man and a woman that has its little hiccups, but otherwise goes pretty well. Hovering over the course of the day is the sense of a future that's wide open, a sense of hope — not necessarily for the future of the country (lest you're a Republican) but for the future of a single person (or two) who dares to dream. The happy ending of this story has been written, and it's real.

Written and directed by Richard Tanne, Southside with You doesn't disguise the fact that this story is about young Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. It's the summer of 1989, and Barack is in Chicago, working as an intern in her law firm. He asks her to go with him to a community meeting ("it's not a date!"), but definitely intends to put whatever smooth moves on her that he can manage. Barack is not painted as a saint. He smokes, and his car is a POS with a hole in the floor (Michelle nervously notices the road going by under her feet).

Before the meeting, they go to a museum and check out paintings by Ernie Barnes, whose work I recognized from the cover of Marvin Gaye's I Want You album, but also (I didn't know this) painted for the TV show "Good Times." Barack impresses Michelle with his knowledge, and even recites Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "We Real Cool" for her. At the community meeting, Barack is invited to speak and he does, further impressing her with his incredible oratory skills; further, a roomful of worshipful women keep telling Michelle about how wonderful he is.

Later, she's skeptical, suspecting that the whole thing is was a ruse. Even so, there's no storming out, or weeping, or any other bloated, oversized drama. They continue to talk, telling stories about their lives (some of them about some not-so-proud moments), eating sandwiches, drinking a beer, and debating the best Stevie Wonder album (Michelle think it's Talking Book, while Barack insists that it's Innervisions). The day ends with a showing of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, a discussion of it, a blowout, and then... hope.

A word about the movie's actors. Parker Sawyers portrays Barack Obama, and he's rather astounding. He doesn't do a precise Obama impersonation, but somehow becomes him nonetheless. I'm not sure how much — if any — makeup was used to transform him, but in certain shots, in silhouette, he could actually be the president. Tika Sumpter is Michelle, and she looks a bit less like her real-life counterpart, but still comes across as smart, beautiful, competent, and a little insecure. Hers is the real star-making performance, I think, not hurt by the fact that she's astonishingly beautiful. I expect we'll be seeing a lot more of her.

The movie is being compared, obviously, to Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004), which is apt, but the two films are also quite different. For one thing, Linklater has his own particular rhythms that cannot be copied, and for another, that movie's ending was wide open. This one is not, but it doesn't necessarily look forward to drone strikes or birth certificate debates or whatever else. It looks forward to the idea that a man (or a woman) can suddenly say, "I'm going to be president someday." That this can actually happen, is amazing. That two people can meet and fall in love, is magic.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray release is a perfectly fine transfer of a movie whose strengths are more in the writing and characters than in the audio and visual. It should play extremely well at home. Director Tanne provides a commentary track, and there are a series of short "original artwork and animations," plus a trailer.

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