By: Debbie Wang
The most fitting analogy that can be made for Southside With You is strangely about a good barbecue. Everyone knows the best barbecue is cooked slowly in order to be nice and tender. Southside With You does just that. Moving at what seems to be an impossibly slow pace, the result is a tender film about the beginning of a sweet love story that is just begging for the crooning voice of Elvis’ “Love Me Tender”.
Taking place over the course of one day, Southside With You tells the story of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in 1989. Although, Michelle (Née Robinson) is hesitant to call it a date, since Barack recently started as a summer associate at the law firm where she works. For fear of being judged by her co-workers, she tries to create professional boundaries with Barack. She works twice as hard at the firm to prove herself an earn the respect of her co-workers because she’s a woman. And then she works even harder because she’s black. Not to mention that she feels a certain resentment towards the firm because she’s not passionate about the cases she’s assigned. Throw in the fact that she is Barack’s advisor at the firm? It’s no wonder she wants to keep things as professional as possible.
The irony is that even though she berates Barack for passing judgement on her, she immediately judged Barack when he picks her up at the beginning of the day. He’s a smoker. His car is rusty and there’s a huge hole in the floorboard. And worst of all, he doesn’t like ice cream. But as she learns throughout the non-date, he’s also kind and cares about the community. He’s incredibly intelligent and is a fantastic public speaker. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Barack is trying to boost the morale of a small community and it is probably the most compelling scene of the entire film.
Making the most of every single line of dialogue, Tika Sumpter is a breath of fresh air and is a delight to watch. Parker Sawyer’s Obama impressions stays safely in the I’m-doing-an-impression-of-the-President-but-I’m-not-making-fun-of-him range. In his directorial debut, Richard Tanne frames the subjects tightly, using physical closeness to create a sense of intimacy for the viewers. It feels as though we are on the date with Michelle and Barack, and not just hanging around like a third-wheel. But just as quickly as he makes us feel comfortable, Tanne erects barriers to remind us of our voyeurism. The use of windows, shadows, and distance emphasize the fact that this is a film about two people falling in love and that we are not ones to judge how they go about doing that.
Shot in beautiful, subdued colours, Southside With You is a tight 84 minutes, but it feels much longer – the film is in no rush to go anywhere. Rather, it is quite content to embrace the moments where silence and stolen glances are the most telling. But for those who barely have the patience to wait for their delicious barbecue to be brought to the table, Southside‘s inevitable end result might not be worth the long journey.