Southside With You has a premise that I freely admit made me roll my eyes: it’s based on the Obamas’ first date, the afternoon & evening that Barack and Michelle spent together on their first date. I’m no Obama hater, obviously, but you don’t have to be to think this is kind of a dumb idea for a movie. But the movie is, if not particularly great, better than it has any right to be. Tika Sumpter is really good as a youthful, but steely Michelle. Parker Stevenson, perhaps strangely or perhaps wisely, doesn’t even attempt a vocal impersonation of Barack, but he’s affable enough; a scene where he speaks at a community meeting pulls you out of the movie because he has none ofObama’s natural charisma as a public speaker. From certain angles, both Sumpter and Stevenson look incredibly like the Obamas, so that works. The script attempts to freight this first date with a lot of emotional weight by having the characters help each other come to realize big emotional truths about themselves, which I don’t doubt happened, but probably not on their first date. The script is at its best when its capturing the sometimes awkward, sometimes serious, sometimes funny dialogue of a really good first date; when Barack is helping Michelle realize that she’s subconsciously angry with herself because her job makes her feel like she’s sold out her ideals, it’s not very good, though a late scene in the movie where the characters discuss Barack’s father issues is surprisingly effective and features the best acting of both performers. The question, I suppose, is “What’s the point?” To the degree the movie has a point, it isn’t just to humanize the Obamas; it’s to completely deflate the “great man” theory of history. This film isn’t about two people who are destined for greatness; the Obamas in this movie aren’t destined for anything – they’re just people who don’t really know what they want to do in life. It’s a refreshing take on the biopic, not that this film really fits into that genre exactly; the idea of making a movie about people who end up in the White House and make the case that there isn’t a single thing really special about them . . . it’s bold. Ultimately, it’s not at all a bad movie, which it very easily could have been. The writing is patchy, the performances basically fine & occasionally quite good; it’s a decent movie, best viewed by Obama super-fans, if there are any of those left. But even those, like me, who feel decidedly ambivalent about Obama’s term in office will find small pleasures, if not big ones. 2 ½ stars.
tl;dr – the Obamas’ first date is a weird subject, but the film is better than it has a right to be; solid performances with a variable script add up to a decent, if not particularly good, film. 2 ½ stars.