Monday, September 19, 2016

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU (2016)

Written & Directed by Richard Tanne


When & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. August 30, 2016  5:05 PM


 "Southside With You", the impressive first feature from writer/director Richard Tanne, turns the real-life first encounter of the future forty-fourth President of The United States and his First Lady in to a lovely and captivating drama. A kind of "When Barack Met Michelle". But this is not a light and breezy date movie. The film features a warm, urban romance, set during a hot summer in the South side of Chicago, that is urbane and astute, as we watch these two alluring young people spend a day trying to maneuver around career ambitions, civic duty, political bureaucracy and physical attraction.

The year is 1989 and Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much", which is the hot new song of the moment, we hear blasting through the car radio of Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) during the opening credits. He's on his way to pick up Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), a rising corporate lawyer at a firm where he is a new intern. Barack has managed to convince her to attend a community meeting with him but as his supervisor, Michelle was reluctant to go out with the attractive young man in any capacity. Since being the rare female African-American in a law firm run by mostly white males, she is very concerned about how it would appear if they found out.

However, the meeting won't begin for hours so Barack wants to take Michelle out, spending some time to get to know her better. While this was exactly what she was trying to avoid yet agrees as long as he's aware this will not be a date.

Their first stop is to the Art Institute of Chicago where they check out an exhibit of Afrocentric art. Barack introduces Michelle to the work of Ernie Barnes (that was used on the sitcom "Good Times" as the paintings of Jimmie Walker's character, J.J. which she never watched) and it's vivid depictions of African-American life. The couple spend a great deal of time trading stories about their lives, experiences and aspirations as they make the trek through the city towards their destination.

The focus of this meeting is on the building of a much needed community center with the people of this largely African-American neighborhood expressing their anger and frustration with the city's refusal to fund the project. Encouraged to offer some words of inspiration, Barack addresses the crowd, eloquently persuading them to consider finding alternative means to finance the center. After hearing him speak, Michelle finds herself entranced, just like the rest of the room, witnessing for the first time the moving and powerful effect he has on people.

While we know "Southside With You" is clearly a work of fiction based on true-life events, Mr Tanne, who spent much of his early career as an actor,  has managed to capture a believable essence of their story and of their lives. Taking a cue from Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's "Before Sunrise" film series, we spend a large part of this film just watching Barack and Michelle walk, talk and eventually fall in love. Since we know the outcome, there is no real suspense or tension to be found in the narrative. But what we do have is sparkling and lively conversation between two thoughtful and good-hearted people.

It would seem very difficult to convincingly bring to life two high-profile people still constantly in the public eye but our actors handle the challenge with poise and flair. With his first major film role, Mr. Sawyer may not share much of a physical similarity to our Commander-In-Chief but he delivers his confident swagger and makes him in youth far less guarded then he would ultimately need to become. Ms Sumpter (who also serves as one of the film's producers) is equally effective, displaying the steely resolve of the future Mrs. Obama that we're familiar with but also her softer side, particularly when Barack is able to soothe her at her most anxious.

After spending the afternoon together, Barack finally convinces Michelle to engage in a date-like activity. They go see Spike Lee's incendiary film, "Do The Right Thing". There is another flareup after the movie due to the unexpected appearance of one of her bosses but Barack and Michelle do eventually share their first kiss over ice cream.

Despite the inevitable predictability of the story, "Southside With You" offers something refreshing and rarely seen in American cinema. An intimate love story between two African-Americans that doesn't involve struggling in poverty, domestic violence, gang-shootings or raunchy humor.