‘Southside with You’ offers an intimate look at a very public couple

The romantic drama is set in Chicago in 1989 when Barack Obama took a reluctant Michelle Robinson on a daylong excursion around Chicago’s South Side.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU Photo credit - Matt DinersteinWhat’s so appealing about president Barack Obama and Michelle’s first date? Just ask Richard Tanne, whose debut directing project “Southside with You” devotes its entire running time to an account of the couple’s first date.

For Tanne, who not only directs, but writes this poignant romantic drama, it all started eight years ago when he saw accounts of Michelle and Barack’s date during the 2008 campaign.

“They talked about it a lot in both presidential campaigns,” he recalls. “Michelle wasn’t interested at first, and Barack had to win her over. By the end of the first date, he had done just that. It just felt like the perfect conflict for a movie.”

The romantic comedy-drama is set in Chicago in 1989 when Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), a first-year law associate, took a reluctant attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) on a daylong excursion around Chicago’s South Side. While details of the couple’s conversations are fictionalized, the events depicted in the film are true. The couple attended an art exhibition, took in a screening of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” had lunch, went out for a drink and even visited Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. It’s mostly conversation, and the film follows the duo as they wander Chicago’s South Side, while having idle banters on topics from parents to former boyfriends/girlfriends, childhood, music and ambition.

“What was appealing to me,” Tanne continues, “was who the president and first lady were as people before they became the icons we know today.”

The first impression of “Southside with You” is that it is pretty to watch. Sawyers and Sumpter in playing the president and first lady aptly nail their characters. The audience is drawn to these two people as are they to each other, and it’s not hard to understand why. Parker Sawyers - Photo by Samantha Ofole-PrinceThey’re fresh, likable, have a sense of humor, and it helps tremendously that there’s chemistry between the two actors who are destined for more starring roles. As Barack Obama, Sawyers not only embodies his physicality, but his mannerisms, including his hand gestures, which are displayed in a scene where he gives an impassioned speech at a community meeting. It’s there we see Obama’s ability at giving inspiring speeches begin to develop, something that would eventually lead him to the presidency.

“He was just a guy trying to get a girl in the summer of 89,” shares Sawyers, who jumped at the chance to be a lead in a film and won the role over three dozen other candidates.

With its languid unfolding of moods, it’s hard not to love “Southside with You,” for Tanne has gone out of his way to transport the audience to a sort of love-fantasy. Using a lot of authentic locations, including a church where Obama actually spoke, he shows different sides of Chicago’s South Side that are usually not portrayed in film scenes. Even Michelle Robinson’s family home was shot two blocks from her actual house.

The music, including a score by Los Angeles-based composer Stephen James Taylor, also helps convey the film’s temporal setting. Classic ‘80s R&B hits, which were hugely popular at that time, add to its charm and there are a couple of original songs, thanks to singer/songwriter maestro John Legend.

Smart and sophisticated, sweet and nostalgic, the film has style and flair and is a pleasure to watch, plus the spark of romance between a future first couple makes it all the more poignant.

“Southside with You” releases in theaters Friday

(Pictured: Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter Photo/Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions)

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