The biggest question raised by the release of Southside With You, writer-director Richard Tanne’s debut feature about the 1989 first date between young Chicago attorney Michelle Robinson and a summer associate at her corporate firm by the name of Barack Obama, is: Are you just trying to rub salt in the wound, Richard Tanne? In the final months of the second term of this country’s first black president, we’re careening toward an election that’s proving to be, in ways unforeseeable by this film’s producers when they undertook the project years ago, a painful referendum on our country’s lingering divides over race and gender. What are we supposed to do with a tender, intelligent microbiopic about a single afternoon and evening in the life of the president and first lady, years before they ever conceived of the notion that they might be anything of the kind? How is this going to help us with our sorrow about the imminent departure of the first family from the public eye?
We don’t need an origin story to remind us of why Barack and Michelle (again, placing politics aside for a moment) have been the premier first couple of our lifetimes. In addition to their being handsome and funny and well-dressed and truly, unfakeably fond of each other, there was the simple and merciful fact that no whiff of intra-Obama scandal occurred during his eight years in office. No interns to depose, no first-daughterly misbehavior to cluck over. (OK, there was the alleged incident of Malia taking a puff of weed at a concert this summer, but that was an after-school-special script of a scandal in comparison with the partying of some White House teenagers. And anyway, it’s basically senior week of the Obama presidency.) Nor has there been any diva-esque behavior on the part of the first lady, who despite her avowed distaste for life in the spotlight has stood squarely under its white-hot glow for eight years—doing the Dougie; entertaining foreign dignitaries; serving as a forceful advocate for underrepresented populations; and as if ‘twere nothing, embodying the nation’s new, more muscular idea of feminine good arms.
You get the picture. Some of us already ’ship FLOTUS and POTUS enough to have read up a bit on their first date. Why would we require a fan-fic re-enactment, faithful but for one important scene that in fact happened a bit later in their relationship, to appreciate what we had while we still have it? Isn’t it too early for this kind of nostalgia?
But Tanne’s achievement is that he neither wreathes his famous characters in the rosy haze of hagiography nor attempts to paint them in dark, sordid tones simply for the sake of making his story more dramatic. Southside With You is fan fiction of the least invasive, most psychologically astute variety. Though it’s barely 84 minutes long, this buoyant yet reflective movie captures the ever-shifting mood of a daylong encounter that changed both its protagonists’ lives.
Not every moment of the day that the ambitious, slightly prim Michelle (Tika Sumpter, who co-produced in addition to playing essentially the film’s main character) spends in the company of Barack (Parker Sawyers) is romantic, fun, or even especially pleasant. Twice over the course of their time together, one confronts the other with an important truth that he or she has been unwilling to face. (When that happens two times on a first date, you know you’re either made for each other or you’d better run as fast as possible in opposite directions.)
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Why would anyone want to watch a film about Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson’s first date? It’s a legitimate question faced by Southside with You – and perhaps the greatest strength of this feature debut by writer-director Richard Tanne is how it sidesteps who these young Chicago lawyers would become, while illustrating precisely what attracted them to each other and a future in politics.
Newcomer Parker Sawyers and Gossip Girl’s Tika Sumpter (who also produces) are uncannily good as the future President and First Lady, capturing their mannerisms, spirit and intelligence through naturalistic performances and a script refreshingly free of gimmicks.
It’s 1989 and Obama is mid-evolution, from the troubled product of a broken home into the eloquent idealistic Harvard graduate who would become leader of the free world. Robinson, meanwhile, is battling gender and racial politics in the corporate world, and as a result, is adamant that this get-together with her subordinate remains nothing more than platonic.
Barack and Michelle watching Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in a still from the film.
Clearly influenced by the walk-and-talk romances of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Southside with You follows the fledgling couple as they visit an exhibition of traditional African-American art, attend a meeting about inner-city housing issues, and ultimately go to a screening of Spike Lee’s seminal film, Do the Right Thing.
Tanne’s crowning achievement is making all these elements feel organic, just as a cocksure young Obama steadily woos a determinedly disinterested Robinson. The result is a film that turns a potentially grating one-trick pony into a fascinating snapshot of America, the black experience and two future leaders in the throes of some kind of awakening.
The main challenge Southside With You sets for itself isn’t a very difficult one. Richard Tanne’s gentle romantic drama charts a first date from its uneasy opening to its hopeful conclusion, with its protagonist Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), as a skeptical young lawyer being wooed by subordinate at her firm. The film, at times, tries to cheekily inject some suspense into whether she’ll be won over. But given that her associate is a young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers)—her future husband and President of the United States—the film inspires very little “will they, won’t they?” nail-biting.
So the real task for Southside With You may be justifying its own existence. In portraying Michelle’s cautiousness and Barack’s halting, but eventually successful charm offensive, the first-time writer-director Tanne revels in the qualities Obama would later use to captivate much of the country. But with President Obama still in office, there’s a sense that it may be too early to retell the story of his and Michelle’s first date—even if the election for his successor is still months away. But leave the oddity of Southside With You’s existence aside, and the film is still compelling for the way it celebrates a powerful partnership by unraveling its earliest moments.
Barack’s side of the first date is more widely known, since he recounted it in his memoir The Audacity of Hope. But the basics are: The pair met at the law firm where she worked and where he was a summer associate. They went to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which had just been released in theaters, and shared an ice cream cone afterward. But in Southside With You, Tanne wisely positions Michelle as the audience surrogate, slowly getting to know Barack as he tries to convince her he’s worth her time.
With the question of a happy ending out of the way, Tanne’s script invests itself more in Michelle’s psychology—including her tightly wound sense of propriety, rooted in her efforts to fit in at institutions (Princeton, high-powered law firms) where she’s one of few black women in attendance. Worried about how their relationship might look to others, Sumpter plays Michelle with her guard up, often deflecting Barack’s attempts to flirt with terse dialogue. Sumpter’s performance may be a little stilted at times, though it speaks to the character she’s playing. Michelle is saddled with heroic amounts of exposition, laying out her life story, and her hopes and fears, while learning more about Barack’s past. But Sumpter sells Michelle’s deeper emotions beautifully through her loving lionization of her family and upbringing, and her simmering resentment over her tenuous status at the firm.
If Southside With You is a love story, its job is to get audiences to fall for Obama: Tanne films his subject with all the subtlety of a campaign ad, bathing him in heavenly light or putting him in dramatic silhouette. Sawyers is not exactly a dead ringer for the president, but he’s close enough, and Tanne does the rest with his camera to make the physical resemblance nigh-uncanny. As a result, there’s a spookiness to Sawyers’ performance, which carefully treads the line between acting and mimicry.
The young Obama’s voice and diction are particularly dead-on when he’s in a political mode, especially in what comes closest to the film’s set piece: Barack talking at a community meeting at a local church in the South Side of Chicago. That meeting was the ostensible reason for his and Michelle’s date, a non-romantic excuse for them to intermingle outside of the office (he springs the Spike Lee movie, and the ice cream, on her later). It’s also the moment for Tanne to have the most fun with the odd premise of his film, forsehadowing Obama’s effortless ability to connect with a crowd, even though this time it’s just a dozen people sitting in church pews.
Fortunately, whenever Southside With You threatens to get too cute, it pulls back a little. When Michelle asks Barack if he’s thought about a career in politics, he replies “maybe,” with a shrug, taking another drag on his cigarette. For the most part, Tanne resists having his characters wink to the camera, relying instead on the power of Sawyers’ and Sumpter’s performances. In a tumultuous election year, Southside With You is a gentle, rose-tinted piece of political nostalgia—one that glances at the divisions in American society, but still casts a optimistic view toward whatever’s next.