‘Southside with You’ Review: Before Sunrise or the Oval Office

'Southside with You'

Movie Rating:


Here’s an idea for a first-time feature film that should be foolish: a romantic drama about the current President and his First Lady meeting in Chicago. It should be the sort of thing that inevitably turns out cornball and rings false. Somehow, debut director Richard Tanne delivers a sweet and moving movie that not only does its famous subjects justice, but openly draws comparisons to ‘Before Sunrise’ and doesn’t embarrass itself.

That’s no easy feat. Tanne does something delightful here that’s somehow more romantic than historic and never devolves into tiresome self-importance. Well played, sir.

The most interesting aspect of ‘Southside with You’ is the way the movie avoids being some sort of grand “important man” story. That’s not to say that the movie is completely divorced from politics, just that it doesn’t tediously go through a checklist of all the iconic mannerisms and motivations that made Obama the President with little time for humanity. We meet the guy (Parker Sawyers) as a bachelor inching towards 30, working as a summer associate at a law firm. There he meets Michelle (Tika Sumpter), who is understandably a bit guarded about being taken seriously and getting respect as the only black woman in her office. Barack invites her out to a community meeting and she insists that it’s not a date. He adds a few extra items to the agenda including a trip to an art gallery and a picnic in the park, and she’s not impressed. Then they walk and talk for the duration of the movie (eventually ending up at a screening of Spike Lee’s depressingly timeless masterpiece ‘Do the Right Thing’, which did indeed happen), and slowly all the walls slide down.

Shot on location in Chicago, the movie drifts between wistful naturalism and historic biography. The nature of a first date means that the pair can slip in and out of personal history monologues in a way that feels right. Occasionally, Tanne’s script feels a little clunky as he slips in a few too many factoids and longing glances into the distance discussing a possibly important future. That can be a bit irritating, but it’s practically a necessity. This isn’t a rambling tale of love blossoming between two fictional characters. These are the Obamas, and there’s a reason why Tanne’s movie is about them. A nice sense of the city seeps into the narrative and Tanne gently teases out all the issues, ideas and places that will shape the couple without straining believability too much. After all, it was no accident that this couple came from where they dud and went where they went. There’s something quite sweet about watching that whole thing played out in microcosm.

The almost aggressively charming movie is of course anchored by two actors who carry the entire thing, and thankfully the central duo don’t drop the ball. Parker Sawyers has the showier role of the two, obviously. Not only must he include hints of an impression of a 21st Century icon, but also all the charm and wit that made him a hero to millions and ideal lover to one. Sawyers does it well, finding a human beneath all the tics and tricks. You never forget who he’s playing, but it thankfully never feels like an ‘SNL’ sketch either.

Tika Sumpter is likely even better. She also gets all the mannerisms right, but has the luxury of having more to play than just a President in the incubation stage. She has a battle for respect at work as well as the doomed-to-fail attempts to push away her new suitor to play. There’s more meat there, and she’s also essentially the heart of the story. Sawyers is ultimately caught in a mini origin tale, while Sumpter is more alive and in the moment and wonderful in her role.

‘Southside with You’ charms up a storm during its sweetly moving and rambling 84 minutes. It might tackle some tricky issues, but always from an inspiring and hopeful perspective. The central romance is quite sweet and gently teased out so that it never feels forced.

The movie probably won’t play for anyone uninterested in the Obamas, and it’s not like you’ll ever forget who you’re watching and think of them as merely characters. Undoubtedly, plenty of people will be frustrated by the film’s very existence because it dares to humanize and honor two currently powerful people on a specific side of the political spectrum. Fair enough. This is a Lefty movie, for sure. If, for the sake of balance, someone decided to make a similar movie about Donald and Ivanka Trump, I would 110% be on board with such a project. The chances of that movie being this sweet and heartfelt are slim, but the chances of it being hysterically entertaining are through the roof. Let’s make that happen, shall we? Sounds like a passion project to help Michael Bay get taken seriously, no?


  1. Timcharger

    “Before Sunrise or the Oval Office”

    Phil or Josh, who explains this title?

    The “Before Sunrise” part is that it’s a talky
    romance story. What’s the “or the Oval
    Office” part? I know what the Oval Office
    is, but what is the “OR THE” supposed to
    suggest? Or is there an extra meaning to
    Oval Office?

      • Timcharger

        So Before Sunrise AND BEFORE they went into
        the Oval Office. I read it as as soup OR salad,
        meaning you can’t have both.

        But no worries; got it.

          • Timcharger

            “Either” being implied doesn’t help.
            You can get either soup or salad.
            Either Hillary will win or Donald will
            win. But “either” can mean both, too.
            Who do you want to win the election?
            Either is fine. That means both
            options are fine. I didn’t suggest
            adding “either.” “And” is my

            Now you got me thinking on a fix.
            (Not that it really needs one. I did
            say, no worries.)

            Before Sunrise AND Before D.C.
            Before Sunrise in Chi-Town

            This “or” means both are better
            than the current title.

          • Timcharger

            Josh: “Tim overthinks AND overcomplicates…”

            Ahhh, progress! You wrote “and” not “or.”

          • You need to let this go, Tim. “Sunrise and the Oval Office” implies that those two things are connected. They are not connected. They are separate thoughts. The events of this story happen before either one of them.

            “Or” is the correct word. Can we move on now? Thank you.

          • Timcharger

            Not suggestions of mine:
            “Before Either Sunrise or the Oval Office”
            “Sunrise and the Oval Office”
            (but quoted and refuted as if I suggested them)

            Actual suggestions of mine:
            “Before Sunrise and Before D.C.”
            “Before Sunrise in Chi-Town”

            “Let it go?” Didn’t I last compliment you?

            Overthink? Over-complicate? Yes, yes.
            But misquote for easy straw man arguments.

          • Timcharger

            Yes EM, you clearly know that in usage,
            “or” can be inclusive or exclusive. And
            it is in context that we can understand
            what the writer meant. But a title has no
            context. Titles are separate from the body
            of the text. And the title here and the body
            may have 2 different authors. Since Josh
            replied, I assume that is the case here.

            And in this particular example, “Before
            Sunrise” itself is a reference to another
            film. That implies those 2 words grouped
            together apart from the rest of the title.

            So I read the title as:
            (Before Sunrise) (or the Oval Office)

            While Josh meant:
            Before (Sunrise or the Oval Office)
            [Distributive property has “Before” applying
            to both “Sunrise” and “Oval Office.”]

            So I asked for clarity. Josh provided clarity,
            but also threw in some straw-man, so the
            fun/misery continued.

  2. Timcharger

    Phil: “If, for the sake of balance, someone decided to make a similar movie about Donald and Ivanka Trump, I would 110% be on board with such a project. The chances of that movie being this sweet and heartfelt are slim, but the chances of it being hysterically entertaining are through the roof. Let’s make that happen, shall we? Sounds like a passion project to help Michael Bay get taken seriously, no?”

    Let’s face it, Michael Bay would change it to Melania not
    Ivanka Trump. Imagine the explosions, slow motion
    images, and camera pans around whichever young
    model/actress Bay will cast. Yes there will be literal,
    fiery explosions. And even if Donald and Melania met
    in her mid-20s (cuz that’s a sensible 35 year age gap),
    Bay would have Melania be in high school when
    Donald pursues her. Because he will carry a laminated
    free-statutory-rape card in his wallet.

    (Read again carefully, the comments are about Bay’s
    perversions for this proposed passion project.)

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