Hot Take: Before Sunrise meets the First Couple. And that’s a good thing!
If you have a top 100 films list and Before Sunrise isn’t on it, I just assume you haven’t seen it. It’s the quintessential movie about two people getting to know each other. It’s a film that has been burned on my memory for two decades yet it feels as fresh in my mind as something I watched in the last few hours. So, to say Southside With You, the “truth inspired” story of the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, was structurally reminiscent of Before Sunrise isn’t really much of a knock on Southside With You. If anything, it’s supportive of a relatively smart decision as the 1995 Richard Linklater film isn’t a bad one to mimic. (Heck, Linklater did it himself a few more times afterward with incredibly positive results!)
Think what you want about the politics of Barack Obama. (This isn’t a political site so we’re not going there.) The love story of Barack and Michelle and their ascension side by side to the White House is a beautiful and inspiring tale. It shouldn’t be baffling why someone would want to make a movie based on the origin of their story. Enter Southside With You. The first date of Barack and Michelle gets a brisk 84 minute big screen reenactment featuring Parker Sawyers as the smooth, swaggy young Barack and Tika Sumpter as the ambitious but tightly wound Michelle. Apparently, it’s 90% accurate to what actually occurred which is a pretty damn good percentage considering the liberties Hollywood usually takes with “true” stories.
While Southside With You is an homage to the grand relationship the Obamas now share. The portrayals of Barack and Michelle are heartfelt but occasionally feel more like imitation than embodiment. It’s a sensitive telling that brings up culturally relevant themes of the period and acts out how the two would bond over their social views and their desire to do more than just make a lot of money. Those moments might be the 10% that are given a dose of Hollywood yet the film is so low-key and subtle, it’s easily believable that that’s exactly how things went down on their first date.
From beginning to end, Southside With You is a breezy, compelling watch. There is enough story here that if we didn’t know what the future held for this pair, it would still be a movie worth taking in. It’s not action packed but it’s deep in its exploration of the First Couple’s momentous first date. Right up to that first kiss now commemorated by a historical marker outside of Baskin-Robbins in Hyde Park, you’ll find yourself rooting for this on-screen couple and at the same time realizing they’ve already lived happily ever after.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Soft Tones, Suitable Tunes
The visuals and music of Southside With You make it an easy transition back to 1989. The authenticity of the time period is fairly impressive as there were moments I forgot I was watching a film shot in 2015. The film’s executive producer John Legend also adds an original work to the credits with “Start” and if you’re a fan, it’s worth hanging around for.
- Solid Performances
While there are times where both Sawyers and Sumpter appear to be mimicking more than acting, those moments are few and far between. The pair more frequently embody the well known couple and do more than just imitate some of their facial expressions and speech patterns. There’s reserved emotion in the performance that resonates. Like the movie, the performances are respectful.
- Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s 1989 film plays an integral part in the story of their first date as Barack and Michelle took in the film at some point on their day-long adventure together. The film might actually be more relevant today and puts an interesting twist on how their date unfolds. Again, some of the aftermath might fall in the 10% of the story that is Hollywood but there’s nothing there to question the moment’s authenticity.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Comparisons to Before Sunrise
The film is so alike in structure to Before Sunrise, it’s really quite difficult to not compare the two. I’m not sure I’d make a “walk and talk” date movie any other way but it makes it tough for Southside With You to stand on its own.