Writer-director Richard Tanne’s feature film debut “Southside With You” views history through an unlikely, heart-shaped prism: the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Contemplating further such forays into presidential romance is indeed frightful. Are we itching closer to a rom-com about the courtship between Gerald and Betty? Or, heaven help us, “Pizza Night With Bill and Hillary”?
And yet Tanne’s film is no mere First Couple valentine. Nuanced and charming, “Southside With You” is a sunny, strolling odyssey through African-American life in 1989, filtered through two future icons as they navigate the world around them and their place in it. Tanne and his excellent actors (Parker Sawyers as Barack, Tika Sumpter as Michelle) compress into a single day something broader and more meaningful than White House trivia.
Though the movie settles into a Richard Linklater-like series of conversations and encounters, it begins with the blare of Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” on the car radio and the unmistakable feel of an ’80s movie. “Southside With You” is, in a way, a portrait of a president-to-be as a young John Cusack.
Riding in a beat-up yellow Datsun and flicking his cigarette ash out the window, 28-year-old Barack is on his way to pick up Michelle, a 26-year-old colleague from their law firm who persistently insists that they are emphatically not on a date. “Just another smooth talking brother,” is Michelle’s judgment, as recited here by her mother.
The Obamas’ first encounters were, to an extent, sweetly old-fashioned. He took her to a movie. They kissed over ice cream at Baskin Robbins.
But the film was no mere date movie; it was Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” And their stops include an African American art exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and a community meeting in a church (something incorporated here from a later date) where “Brother Barack” flashes his speech-making skills.
They drive a little and walk a little through Chicago’s Southside, but they’re also passing through a larger cultural atmosphere. Barack is reading Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” before he leaves to pick up Michelle. Names of people killed on the streets of Chicago adorn a wall they stride past. Debate over the divisive ending of “Do the Right Thing” (when Mookie throws a trash can through Sal’s pizzeria) engulfs them outside the theater.
Sumpter and Sawyers both, against the odds, evade the trappings of impression and give natural, intimate performances about two outsiders on their way to becoming Beltway insiders. “I’m tired of being two different people,” Michelle says of being a black woman in a white world. They are both in the process of forming themselves, measuring their own ambitions. The undertow of history is all around: “Something else is pulling me,” says Obama.
Inevitably, approximately half of the moviegoing electorate will have little interest in “Southside With You.” But the film is essentially devoid of politics. Its tenderness, warmth and modesty (it’s a mere 84 minutes long) is an all the more a welcome change of pace in this election year.
Even most of the winks you’d expect in an origin story like this aren’t heavy-handed. Some are actually quite good. As Michelle gets ready for her date, her father hollers, ominously, “So what’s this boy’s name?”
“Southside With You,” a Miramax and Roadside Attractions, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “brief strong language, smoking, a violent image and a drug reference.” Running time: 84 minutes. Three stars out of four.
“Soul Surfer” Sean McNamara has signed to helm a Ronald Reagan biopic that’s set to start production next spring.
The independent movie, titled “Reagan,” will cover Reagan’s life from his teenage years through his becoming the 40th president in 1981 as seen through the eyes of a KGB agent assigned to follow him during his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild between 1947 and 1952. Reagan testified in 1947 as a friendly witness at the start of hearings by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which led to the creation of the Hollywood Blacklist.
Reagan was governor of California from 1967 to 1975 and easily won two terms as president. He died in 2004.
“Space Cowboys” writer Howie Klausner is writing the script for the $25 million project. Mark Joseph is producing and Ralph Winter is executive producing.
David Henrie, who starred in Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” has signed to star as the young Reagan. Robert Davi, whose credits include “License to Kill” and “Die Hard,” is on board to play Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982.
McNamara worked as a sound technician at age 18 at Reagan’s inauguration ceremony in 1981. In addition to 2011’s “Soul Surfer,” starring AnnaSophia Robb, he’s known for his work as a partner in the Brookwell McNamara Entertainment production company, which produced and created shows for MTV’s The N, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network including “That’s So Raven,” “Even Stevens” and “Beyond the Break.”
McNamara is currently directing “Live Like Line” for LD Entertainment, and the upcoming “The King’s Daughter,” starring Pierce Brosnan, William Hurt and Kaya Scodelario.
Winter has extensive credits on the “Star Trek,” “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” franchise movies. Joseph was an associate producer on “Max Rose,” and an executive producer on “The Vessel,” starring Martin Sheen.
McNamara is repped by APA.
LOS ANGELES: The world premieres of two theater documentaries — Alex Horwitz’s “Hamilton’s America,” a behind-the-scenes look at the history of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway megasmash “Hamilton,” and “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” Lonny Price’s chronicle of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” — are among the offerings lined up as special events for the 2016 New York Film Festival. So is a Jim Jarmusch documentary about rock band The Stooges, “Gimme Danger,” while Adam Driver and Kristen Stewart are set to appear in public discussions.
The newly announced events join a lineup that includes the previously announced world premiere of Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Walk Home,” as well as a screening of Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic, “A Quiet Passion,” co-presented by Film Comment. Davies and star Cynthia Nixon are among the talent who will appear live alongside the festival’s special screenings.
Price and Stephen Sondheim will attend the screening of “Best Worst Thing.” Price was an original cast member of the short-lived Broadway premiere of “Merrily We Roll Along,” which has gone on to become a musical-theater landmark. Horwitz, director of “Hamilton’s America,” will appear with his own documentary (which premieres at NYFF before it airs on PBS later in the fall), alongside other guests to be named. Stooges frontman Iggy Pop will be at the screening of Jarmusch’s “Gimme Danger.”
Stewart, who shows up in multiple films screening at NYFF, and Driver, star of Jarmusch’s main slate selection “Paterson,” are the focus of public discussions as part of the festival’s “An Evening With…” program.
The festival’s special events lineup will take place during the run of the 2016 New York Film Festival, slated for Sept 30-Oct 16. (Agencies)
The fest, presented every year by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, opens Sept. 30 with Ava Duvernay’s documentary “The 13th.”
By Jake Coyle