In 2012, a friend and I were at brunch when the secret service descended. President Barack Obama, heavy on the campaign trail, wanted to eat a local restaurant, and doing so required a dozen agents fanning through a European eatery to assess the over the overall security of the establishment. It was just another moment in the political grandeur that is being a sitting president.
There is no trace of such star-spangled fanfare in Southside With You—a sweet, enlightening sense memory of a film about Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson's first date in 1989.
The movie’s overwhelming realism is the most startling and endearing component, aside from the compelling and rightfully restrained performances from stars Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers and vivid direction by Richard Tanne. Michelle (Sumpter) lives in a small house, sans air-conditioning, with her parents. Barack (Sawyers) drives a yellow rust-bucket with a hole in the floor and smokes like a chimney.
The two gather for a platonic outing. Through their conversations, you get a distinct sense of their personalities and histories, and see crackles of fledgling chemistry. Michelle is full of misdirected fire and passion. Barack is eerily adept at reading people. As half-white, half-Kenyan kid born in the '60s and raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, he had a difficult time fitting in anywhere and probably cultivated that ability to survive. Barack Obama’s enviable charisma is there, but it’s also accompanied by a well-concealed, simmering anger and a palpable loneliness you may not associate with the suave politician.
There are glimpses of greatness in these humble versions of the future President and First Lady, especially when Barack rises to speak at a community meeting and turns a rightfully irate and frustrated crowd into a hopeful and motivated one. Sawyers, who bears a striking resemblance to President Obama, avoids the irresistible urge to mimic the his trademark oration that has been finessed in the 27 years since.
Ironically, the scene-stealing diction comes from Sumpter, who adapts of a strangely obvious Midwestern accent that I've never noticed with the real First Lady. It is distracting, but not enough to take away her overall winning portrayal of Michelle’s Type-A ambition.
One of the many reasons, Southside With You’s marked ordinariness excels is due to what we already know will happen to these too young people years away from changing history. Barack and Michelle go see Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. The juxtaposition of the movie's scenes involving police brutality and riot as well as a young Obama mentioning the burden Chicago's first black mayor carried along with his history achievement hit hard. Even in 1989, Barack already realized that game-changing progress for all could weigh on the one accomplishing it, and you can’t help but wonder how he’s shouldering it now in the wake of Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump and volatile "post-racial" America.
As tempting as it may have been to show where this couple were destined to end up—the marriage, the careers, the children, the elections, the White House--Southside With You doesn't stray from its intended goal as an honest look at the origins of excellence. It's both maddening and inspiring, because success, especially the history-making kind, is not perfect or simple or instantaneous. Sometimes, it's just two people who haven't figured things out but are determined to carry on.