We're quick to canonize the leaders, innovators, and famous folks who fascinate us -- just usually not this quick. Southside With You is a laudation to an American power couple, and writer-director Richard Tanne treats the Obamas' history like scripture. Not unlike how every Jesus movie foreshadows the man's engraved conclusion, Southside expects us to see not just the two characters on this sweet date but the ones who are now noble voices in the political engine.
"Dad always said education was key," wonders Michelle aloud, as she wrestles with her own professional identity. Tracing a line through his own childhood, Barack jokingly reminds his date that, "Hawaii is in the States, you know." And during a vigorous speech, delivered with compassion and perfect cadence by Sawyers, Barack recounts the struggles of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. "He learned the hard truth of our country," he says. Short version: it's almost impossible to get anything done.
Fictionalizing a standing president's life is a relatively new tactic. Joe Klein satirized Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign with his 1996 book Primary Colors, which still resorted to thinly veiled stand-ins. Oliver Stone went for jugular in the serio-comedy W., which lampooned George W. Bush's reign at the tail end of the his second term. Southside With You stands apart with its positive approach, the story of a nice, flawed guy becoming a great man (by the film's definition). It's hagiography, the JFK-ing of Obama from leader to celebrity It almost vindicates itself.