'Southside With You' Casts Chicago's Mean Streets in a Different Light

When members of the national media turn their attention to Chicago’s Southside, it’s often to direct our attention to a shooting or some other tragedy. That section of the Windy City rarely appears in positive light.

Southside With You
, which opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, attempts to cast Chicago’s Southside in a positive light. While the film succeeds on that count (the images of various neighborhood landmarks make the place look like a mini-Brooklyn), its sentimental storyline fails to catch fire.

Written and directed by Richard Tanne, the movie uses Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date as its inspiration. Yes, that Barack and Michelle Obama. Barack (Parker Sawyers), a scrawny young law firm associate with charisma to spare, invites Michelle (Tika Sumpter), a workaholic lawyer at the same firm, to a town meeting on summer day in 1989. He thinks it’s a date; she doesn’t. He doesn’t help his cause by showing up late, either.

The date starts off awkward and then only gets more awkward as the two head to the Art Institute to admire an African-American art exhibit — she didn’t know that it was part of the afternoon that Barack planned. In one poignant scene, the two recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool” while admiring some artwork by African-American actor and painter Ernie Barnes.

When they eventually show up at the church where the meeting is to take place and all the church women come up to Michelle to tell her just how much they admire Barack, she thinks it’s set up, but that’s not clear. The civic leaders all truly respect Barack. They even ask him to speak at the meeting, and he fires them up by telling them they shouldn’t take no for an answer after the city has turned down the request to fund a community center. 

Ultimately sentimental (anyone who knows the story of the Obama’s first date will know that it ends with a tender kiss outside of a Baskin-Robbins), the film certainly possesses a quaint charm. Sawyers bears a striking physical resemblance to Barack, and Sumpter looks the part too. But Sumpter makes Michelle seem too prickly and distrusting. As a result, the film's depiction of the romance just doesn’t come to life.  

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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