‘SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU’ gives the genial origin story of the Obamas

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ff-southside-with-youPreston Barta // Editor

Say what you will about their politics and views, but the Obamas’ love was made for movie screens.

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is not a political-driven narrative. It quite simply is a walk-and-talk feature that follows a young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) as they fall for each other during their first date.

While you may approach this movie out of historical curiosity, there’s something to be said about the way this film functions as a mere romantic-comedy about two ambitious people trying to forge their careers and articulate their dreams. There’s a universal quality to the film that doesn’t go unnoticed.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers visit Dallas on their SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU promotional tour. Photo by Preston Barta.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers visit Dallas on their SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU promotional tour. Photo by Preston Barta.

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do this film and help get it made. I read about it early on and was surprised by how it seemed to evoke their humanity and tell a relatable story,” Sumpter said when she and her co-star Sawyers stopped in Dallas on a promotional tour. “The script wasn’t even written yet, but [writer-director] Richard Tanne’s vision was so clear.”

Winding the clock back to 1989 Chicago’s South Side, Tanne’s vision shows a very different side to the Michelle and Barack we know today. It’s refining that we meet the future President of the United States as he cranks Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” in his beat up, yellow Datsun. It’s even more humanizing the way the film opens with a nervous Michelle shaving her legs and putting on deodorant in preparation for her day with Barack as they frolic about town.

“Playing two roles like this is a rare and fulfilling opportunity, because we don’t often get offered roles like this,” Sumpter said. “We knew we had to approach it from a realistic standpoint,” Sawyers said.

Sawyers astutely never does a full on impression of President Obama. He plays him more reserved and sows the seeds for the cadence we’ve come to know.

“I had been working on an impersonation for awhile. ‘Of course I can. I can switch right into it,’” Sawyers jokingly said in a modern Obama voice. “But for this feature, it was more about dialing it back and playing him as a young man who was just out of school and didn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

There’s a powerful line in the film that is spoken by Michelle where she comments on Barack’s relationship with his late father. Barack never felt that his father’s business in this world was complete, to which Michelle replies with, “Every father has unfinished business; that’s why they have sons.”

It’s the kind of line really sinks into your conscience and may even cause you to reflect on what you have unknowingly inherited from your own family.

“My father passed away 10 years ago when I was 23. We actually buried him on the last Friday in August, which is when this film is releasing. So it’s really special to me,” Sawyers said. “Now that I have a son and daughter of my own, it definitely didn’t make doing that scene easier. But because I was listening at the time, there was no guessing involved about how to go about it. I knew exactly how to feel, because I could relate.”

“It’s my favorite scene in the film,” Sumpter said. “It was a point of connection for them— even connecting it back to her father, whose father (Michelle’s grandfather) didn’t pay for him to go to college. Anyone who has lost a parent can relate to that line and scene.”

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is as smart as it is charming. It doesn’t depend on the hook of you knowing that the two people in the film are going to go on to be two of the most important figures in history. It is, on its own, a genial and lovely story for anyone who wants to think back on his or her self-defining years.

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is now playing at the Angelika Dallas and AMC Grapevine.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.