Patience Kayira ’20 Contributing Writer
On a balmy Chicago summer morning, a young, flirtatious 27-year-old Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) invites 25-year-old Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) on a “non-date date” to a community center meeting in the Southside of Chicago. Michelle, an attorney at a corporate law firm, strictly means business; she does not want anything to do with the cigarette-smoking Barack. When Barack makes the suggestion of taking a detour to an art museum, Michelle instantly refuses, stating that their outing is “not a date.”
However, the pair does go to the art museum, and they bond over a shared love for poetry. Soon after, they begin to learn things about each other: Michelle loves ice cream and Barack has an incomplete relationship with his father. Through these detours, viewers see feelings slowly develop between Barack and Michelle. Although the pair does eventually attend the meeting, the date ends with a trip to Baskin Robbins where they share their first kiss.
In “Southside with You,” director Richard Tanne Linklater provides a cute interpretation of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. The film begins with a wide establishing shot of a neighborhood street. Viewers see the recurrent motif of neighborhood life; kids in short sleeve t-shirts and shorts ride their bikes along the gray asphalt. The camera then presents a sequence of the young Michelle Robinson in a bra and an ivory pencil skirt, getting ready for what she insists is not a date. The blush pink walls and an indoor clothesline establish the film’s late ‘80s setting. Viewers then meet the young Barack Obama in a ribbed white tank top, reclining in an old chair surrounded by books.
The use of warm, natural lighting mimics the experience of a late August day. Although the film takes place in 1989, Michelle’s orange blouse and pencil skirt and Barack’s blue button down shirt and khakis look almost like what the couple would wear today. In a similar vein, the film presents issues that are socially relevant: the glass ceiling, funding for low-income communities and finding one’s purpose.
The pair’s stroll down a brick memorial commemorating the lives lost to neighborhood violence resonates with the U.S.’s current issues of police brutality and violence in black communities. Both characters communicate their yearning and desire to be a source of hope to these communities.
Both actors performed well in their designated roles. Parker Sawyers portrays young Barack Obama as smooth-talking and cool. He embodies the former president’s likability and calmness in the way he addresses Michelle and other people. Through Tika Sumpter’s intense manner of speaking, Sumpter communicates Michelle Obama’s strive for excellence and perfection. However, at times, Sumpter’s acting appears forced. Sumpter’s stiffness shows Michelle’s initial unwillingness to pursue a relationship with Barack, but it would have been nice to see more personality in her performance.
With countless awkward-cute moments, like the kiss at Baskin Robbins, “Southside with You” is a charming, romantic film. It enables viewers to witness the historical “not-date date” that launched the relationship of one the greatest political power couples in the 21st century.