While prequels are nothing new—non-linear narratives date back to Homer—the origin story is a relatively recent development, and its increasing dominance as a storytelling device speaks to the overwhelming influence of comic books on movies. Origin stories spring from superhero mythology; thanks to the flood of ever-changing continuity inherent in serialization, comic books inevitably return to a superhero’s acquisition of power. It makes sense of convoluted situations and complicated baggage, allowing new readers a point of entry or long-time readers a chance to re-contextualize. When things get messy, we demand explanation.
And now, just as what’s perhaps the most baffling election season in postwar history turns into the home stretch, along comes Southside with You. It’s a dramatization of President Barrack Obama’s first date with First Lady Michelle Obama (née Robinson). Over the course of a long afternoon, young Barry gets his first taste of super-powered oratory, comes to terms with his father’s absence, and glimpses the racial unrest and police abuse he’ll face down the road via Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Michelle, meanwhile, looks on in awe as she witnesses the grand potential within this cocky, ambitious, but unformed law student.
As history, it’s bunk; there’s nothing here that can’t be gleaned from a glance at Obama’s Wikipedia page. But aside from the audacity of making a sweet little romance about a sitting First Family, there’s something interesting about the stars’ if-you-squint resemblance to their real-life counterparts and mastery of their tics. The performances have enough aesthetic veracity that they aren’t too far removed from whatever it is that the cast of the new Star Trek series is up to. They aren’t quite imitations, but they aren’t abstracted enough to be called interpretation either. As Barrack, Parker Sawyers nails the President’s cadence and affection for the term “folks.” Tika Sumpter’s Michelle is a more distinct personality; she’s not quite a dead ringer for the First Lady but she has the charisma, and she approaches the role with a hard-luck indignation that never loses its grip on pragmatism. When she realizes she’s inadvertently found herself on a date, she mounts a convincing argument about perception, women, and race in the workplace.
Unfortunately, the movie insists this smart but struggling woman just needs to relax. And while that’s at best an oversimplification, so is the entire movie. It tip-toes around the more interesting aspects of the President’s personal life—drugs, religion, dating and race—before stepping back and offering too-easy shrugs. In a telling scene, Barrack addresses an angry community meeting and invokes Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. The prospect, he says, was exciting, but there were disappointments too—promises unfulfilled. But that’s okay, he explains. Maybe it’s even a good thing. In our form of government, no one man should be able or expected to change everything. Of course, the real story is more complicated and not as easily digestible.
But it’s still a catchy little story, and so is Southside with You. In scaling back these enormously magnetic personalities, the movie has scaled back its stakes too. But in times like these, the movie’s low-key, diverting charm feels just right.
Southside with You. Written and directed by Richard Tanne. Starring Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter. Opens in Kansas City August 26, 2016.