Greatness in cinema is subjective, but I believe Southside With You is the definitive cinematic depiction of a first date. A simple twist of fate brings Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), a Hawaiian-born Harvard man, to Chicago. Barack is a summer associate at Sidley Austin, one of Chicago’s most prestigious law firms. Interns at Sidley Austin are assigned mentors.
Barack’s mentor is Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter).
Michelle rejects Barack’s advances, insisting their relationship remain professional. Barack (or “Bar” as his grandmother calls him), invites Michelle to his community center in the hopes she will agree to spend the day with him. Although Michelle is adamant about fraternizing with a co-worker, she agrees.
What I loved about Southside With You was that the strength was in the subtlety. We’ve grown accustomed to explosions, jump scares and quick cuts. To sex, car chases and violence. None of that is present here. Two people enjoying Chicago together. It’s demure enough to feel like an actual first date.
The filmmakers had to walk a tight line. In America, the President and especially the First Lady are almost beatified. It can be tricky to humanize them. If you make them too stately it can seem like a school play. Making them too colloquial might make them unrecognizable. It would also betray who they really are. Both Barack and Michelle are Ivy League educated.
And that brings me to the relevance of Southside With You in 2016. We are most certainly not living in a post-racial world. Our society is very much still prejudiced against our black citizens. Barack and Michelle Obama, both in this fictional world and in real life, are shining examples of strong African-Americans who shatter stereotypes.
Barack Obama is a black man raised by a single mother. In the movie, he’s initially portrayed as a chain smoker who is frequently late and who loved to smoke marijuana as a teenager. On the surface, Barack is a negative African-American stereotype. But Barack is so much more than what’s on the surface. Southside With You is the story of Michelle Robinson being initially unimpressed with Barack, and slowly discovering the warmth of his heart and the extent of his intellect.
Politics aside, the film also works as a simple date movie. Two young lovers slowly letting their guard down. Parker Sawyers portrays 27-year-old Barack Obama as smooth, confident and charismatic. Tika Sumpter’s Michelle Obama is an austere, educated and emotionally reserved woman. Michelle lives at home to be close to her father, who has multiple sclerosis. Both of our leads have a lot of emotional baggage when it comes to fathers. I like that the movie doesn’t thoroughly explore their emotional scars. After all, it’s only a first date.
The chemistry between our two leads is unbelievable. I don’t even think I blinked once during the entire screening. After spending the day together, we see Barack and Michelle going back to their respective homes; their lives irrevocably altered. As the credits rolled, I heard one of the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life.
John Legend, the film’s executive producer, wrote an original song for Southside With You. “Start” is sung from the perspective of a man (presumably Barack) passionately pleading for a woman to give him a chance. He lists all the wonderful things that come with love. He lilts about the beautiful fulfillment of two people finding each other, and opening up to one another in the fullest capacity. John’s voice tantalizes the mystical magic of love… and then teases the listener by singing (if my memory serves) that this supernatural ecstasy can only begin if both parties let it “Start.” In my opinion, this song is the best song of John’s career.
This is a perfect movie for any moviegoer of any age. Go see it with your friends, your date, your spouse, your parents, your kids or anything with a pulse.