From the get-go, I knew that the film’s casting would be one of its strengths. The use of relatively unknown actors was essential in allowing them to fully embody Barack and Michelle as the normal people they were then, as opposed to painting them as the larger-than-life political power couple that they clearly are now. Sawyers’s performance was the most impressive out of the two. Notwithstanding his slight resemblance to the real-life Barack Obama, Sawyers transformed into the young, smooth-talking, chain-smoking version of Barack that I loved to get to know. He nailed Obama’s mannerisms without coming across as an impersonator, and truly showed the intense admiration Barack has had for Michelle from the very start. Sumpter’s portrayal of Michelle, though not as chameleon-like, was compelling. Just like the Michelle Obama we have come to know and love, Sumpter’s Michelle Robinson was a strong, independent, take-no-prisoners type of woman, showing that Michelle has always been a role model for women everywhere.
Although Sawyers’s performance stood out as being stronger, Barack’s character was not necessarily the focal point of the film. The film is about Barack and Michelle in their early days as a couple, but it seems to focus a bit more on Michelle, which I appreciated greatly. It would have been too easy for the to be a film about a man having a woman fall in love with him and eventually becoming president. The fascinating nature of their relationship, however, lay in their give and take and their treatment of each other as equals. Barack’s respect for Michelle, and writer/director Richard Tanne’s respect for Barack and Michelle’s relationship dynamic, was evident throughout the film.
Though Southside With You was obviously written about the Obamas and cannot be separated from that, I was left wondering if the film would be as interesting had it been about a purely fictional couple. In short, I don’t think so. It was a joy to watch the romance between our then-future President and his then-future First Lady unfold on the screen before me. But without knowing who they are today, without knowing that they have accomplished the things they spoke of hoping to achieve in the future, the film would lack charm.
My like for Southside With You seems to be less about the film itself and more about the admiration I have for Barack and Michelle. The film will appeal to others fans of the Obamas and fans of romance in general, as it presents an a la Before Sunrise look into the beginnings of a legendary American couple.