“Southside With You” tells the legendary love story between Michelle and Barack Obama before we came to know them as our President and First Lady and, frankly, I cannot handle not knowing even more of it, having now seen the film. I want the wedding and everything leading up to it – their first real fight and the make-up session, the birth of their first child, and then their second, etc. “Southside With You” is a tale of a love that shows how some folks are just meant to be. If The Obamas actual relationship dynamic has anywhere near the amount of chemistry that was sparking off the screen in this satisfying romance drama, there is no question about why, together, they have been able to literally take over the world.
Writer and director Richard Tanne has created a film with an undeniably saccharine, feel-good vibe, which manages to depict the cute courtship, starting with a trip to the museum in which they bond over their mutual love for poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and have a deep conversation about the artwork of Ernie Barnes. The date draws to a close at Baskin Robbins after an intense and awkward scene involving the pair running into their co-workers at a screening of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” This all amounts to authenticity–a necessary component for a biopic, which “Southside With You” is, in part. As President and First Lady, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama (nee Robinson) were commanding real-life presences and many important film elements converge to a render a pitch perfect recapitulation of the late 1980s through a Black American lens. Most noteworthy, the subtle, yet demonstrably fastidious attention given to the sonic and set design elements necessary to ensconce the viewer in a Chicago summer, in 1989.
Through fun R&B 90s jams and spot-on costume design, we are taken, as if in a time machine, back to a period that encourages fond memories for people who came of age during those years. “Southside” sits right at the cusp of a radical shift in Black American music and cinema for that matter. Janet Jackson’s seminal album, “Control” (1986) ushered in the New Jack Swing era—a very distinct new sound— and more politically conscious Black movies were beginning to emerge.
Music is always one of the most memorable parts of summer. We can all think back on certain summers and the songs that scored our memories. The film’s soundtrack, including 90s R&B favorites, like Al. B Sure’s “Nite and Day” and “Miss You Much,” by Janet Jackson, released in 1988 and 1989 respectively, pull you right into the sweltering Chicago summer and communicate a necessary feeling which words simply cannot. Noteworthy is a thoughtful use of diegetic sound in a moment early in the film, from Barack’s car radio, to the radio in Michelle’s house as she’s getting ready for their fateful date.
In a similar way, the hype around the release of Spike Lee’s, “Do The Right Thing” primes the audience for even more nostalgia and realism. The tension surrounding Lee’s racially charged classic was palpable.
Another aspect of authenticity in “Southside With You” I’d be remiss not to mention is the flawless casting by Tracy ‘Twinkie’ Bird, with character portrayals by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers that read so spot-on, that the actors disappear, absorbed into the roles they are inhabiting, so seamlessly. It is easy to see and believe that Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson are really on the screen.
Tika Sumpter delivers a sharp, on-the-nose performance as Michelle Obama, even down to the vocal imitation. In preparation for the role, she went to the same voice coach who readied David Oyelowo for the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the film “Selma” (2014). The way she captures the nuances in Michelle’s speech pattern and tone is uncanny. And what may seem like minor details, like when the DP closes in and lingers on Michelle’s (Sumpter’s) toes, as she rubs lotion on her legs in preparation for her date with Barack, and adds another layer of truth and relatability to the biopic. You simply cannot take your eyes off her. Also the scenes with her mother Marian Robinson (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and father Frasier C. Robinson III (Phillip Edward Van Lear) have a sensible home video quality to them, if not a little “Black Brady Bunch”-like.
If I had to render a one word review for “Southside With You” it would be “delightful.” It is delightful to witness the genesis, however fictionalized, of the world’s most famous power couple. Perhaps they will make a movie about the courtship of Beyonce and Jay-Z one day, or a narrative feature starring John Boyega opposite Tessa Thompson—whatever it might be, as long as they are on-screen together— but until then, “Southside With You” has risen to the top of my list of Black romance movies, second only to “Love Jones” (1997). Little touches of normalcy are peppered throughout the film, giving viewers insight into the personality, temperament, and quirks of the characters, helping to establish a sense of down-home normalcy, undoubtedly to humanize the couple we’ve held in exaltation for the last eight years.
If you missed “Southside With You” in theaters last year (it never opened wide, which means a lot of you didn’t see it), the film premiered on Netflix today, April 28, so check it out!
Nella Fitzgerald has her Master’s Degree in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. She is an Independent Film Curator and Festival Programming Consultant. Her 10 year old daughter’s favorite film is “Citizen Kane.” She has spent the last year teaching Visual Analysis and yoga to elementary students at Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland, CA. Find her on Twitter @Nellafitzz or read her blog at: Nelledejour.blogspot.com.