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Review: ‘Southside With You’ drops in on the cute beginning of a beautiful Obama partnership

Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in "Southside With You."
Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in “Southside With You.”
(Matt Dinerstein / Miramax / Roadside Attractions)

Henry Fonda as a dishy “Young Mr. Lincoln” hanging out with Marjorie Weaver’s Mary Todd notwithstanding, first dates for future occupants of the Oval Office may not seem like ideal romantic movie material. But “Southside With You” shows how and why it can be done.

Set on Chicago’s South Side in 1989 and inspired by the actual first date between Barack Obama and the then-Michelle Robinson, “Southside” is a sweet date-night movie about a date that wasn’t really a date. Until it was.

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Richard Tanne, “Southside” does have its standard, conventional aspects, but it was a popular Sundance item despite that, in large measure because of the performances of its finely matched pair of stars.

Both Parker Sawyers (a dead-ringer for the president) as Barack and “Ride Along’s” Tika Sumpter as Michelle are more than effective, charismatic players. The people they create are so involving in and of themselves we would be interested in their story no matter who they were.

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Still, it can’t be ignored that this is a film that benefits from the audience knowing more than the characters twice over. We are not only aware that Michelle and Barack will end up together, we know that when Michelle tells him “you definitely have a knack for making speeches” it’s a broad hint of great things to come.

Though the conversation between these two is completely made up, the events of that date — including a visit to an art exhibition and a showing of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” — come from information journalists have gleaned from the Obamas over the years.

The back story to this excursion reveals the reason Michelle starts out insisting it was not a date. She is in her second year at corporate law powerhouse Sidley Austin, and Barack, still at Harvard Law, not only works there as well as a summer associate, he is being advised by her.

A date between Michelle and a man she’s called “just another smooth talking brother,” she tells her mother Marian (the veteran Vanessa Bell Calloway) as she gets dressed for the day, would be inappropriate and unprofessional.

Meanwhile, a chain-smoking Barack is getting telephone advice from his grandmother, who tells him it’s important not to be late. Which is what he is as he nonchalantly pulls his beat-up yellow Nissan hatchback with a hole in the floor up to Michelle’s house and she calls him on his tardiness.

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This dynamic, of Barack trying to use his considerable charm to romantically interest Michelle and she pushing back hard with intelligence and spirit, is the film’s key one.

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It leads to one of Sumpter’s best moments, when she doesn’t mince words in describing what a difficult tightrope it is for her to walk to be taken seriously as the only black woman at a white corporate law firm.

The only way Barack has gotten Michelle out at all is to offer to take her to a community organizing meeting he knows about (in real life that meeting took place on another day, but no matter). What he didn’t tell her is that the meeting is taking place later in the day than he’d indicated, leaving time for them to hang out.

Michelle is livid at the deception, but she goes along with it (there’d be no movie if she didn’t) and agrees to spend time with the insistent young man as long as he agrees this is not a date.

So off they go to an African American art exhibit, where Barack exhibits easy familiarity with Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry and the paintings of Ernie Barnes as well as the Chicago-based sitcom “Good Times,” which she has never watched.

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The couple take a literal walk in the park, getting to know each other better. Smoking marijuana was a high school avocation for him, while she focused on education and developed a fondness for chocolate ice cream he does not share.

Barack and Michelle do eventually get to that community meeting, but that is almost a shame because the film’s contrivances and awkward elements are more apparent when other actors are involved.

“Southside With You” is at its best when it’s just Barack and Michelle on the screen. They end up, no surprise, dealing with deeper matters, including his troubled relationship with his father and her frustrations at the firm. When these two are one-on-one with each other, this is a date to remember.

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MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference.

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

In general release.

“Southside With You.” A sweet date-night movie inspired by the first date between Barack Obama and the then-Michelle Robinson and powered by fine performances by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. —- Kenneth Turan

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