By Jeff Reichert in the July-August 2016 Issue
Prior to his election as America’s 44th President, we the people learned a great deal about Barack Obama: of his troubled mixed-race parentage, the exotic locales of his youth, his chain smoking, his powers of verbal persuasion. These factoids are dutifully trotted out in writer/director Richard Tanne’s Southside with You with a clockwork regularity that suggests a faithful screenwriter blissfully untouched by inspiration.
The framework for Tanne’s feature-length information dump is Barack’s storied 1989 first date with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), in which the pair took in an African art exhibit, went on a long walk, caught a late show of Do the Right Thing andmanaged a chaste first kiss over ice cream. The meet-cute romantic framework allows Michelle to act as audience surrogate and gradually coax the life history from her loquacious suitor.
As Barack, Parker Sawyers knows to keep one hand tucked comfortably in his chinos at nearly all times, so that the other can move freely through space, and occasionally come to rest behind an earlobe, as he talks and talks in that familiar rhythmic cadence. Yet as a director, Tanne’s feel for the Southside is as bird’s-eye pedestrian as a satellite image. His needless use of a ’scope frame only serves to highlight the film’s paucity of any real ideas.
One wishes for any glimpse of a raison d’être for the film, even a hint of hoary, patriotic sturdiness that would mark this as something like Barack Obama in Illinois. It sadly never arrives.