Southside with You is a gentle, romantic drama about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. In many ways, it is similar to indie fare like Before Sunrise. The key difference, aside from the fact that this is a true story, is what Barack and Michelle discuss: in between jokes and flirting, they express earnest concerns over how to reconcile success with the need to give back to their communities. While some parts of the date are a matter of record, I have no idea whether this is an accurate film. Accuracy does not really matter here, since writer/director Richard Tanne finds actors with genuine chemistry, and who convincingly suggest the White House is their intertwined destiny.
Tanne spends some time with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) before they meet one summer afternoon. She lives with her affectionate parents, downplaying her plans by protesting, “It’s not a date!” He is alone, speaking to his grandmother over the phone while smoking a cigarette. Before the afternoon starts, they’re already at an impasse. Michelle is Barack’s supervisor at the law firm where they both work – he is a summer associate – and she is more keenly aware of office politics than he is. Barack tries, unsuccessfully, to convince Michelle they’re on a date from the get-go, and settles instead for quality time. Their afternoon is lazy, dreamlike. They go to an art exhibit and the park, all the while talking about poetry, their careers, their families. Barack reveal his hand slowly: the point of the date is a community meeting, one where he delivers a galvanizing speech.
The actors are well-suited to this material, and not just because they look like the President and First Lady. Sumpter speaks with a sticky sort of Midwest accent, choosing her words carefully, while Sawyers speaks with the clipped shorthand of a confident smooth-talker. Tanne finds comedy in the small, carefully observed moments: she immediately disapproves of his smoking, and that his car has a hole in it on the passenger side. The cinematography by Patrick Scola also captures a specific sense of place. This vision of Chicago is lush and languid, with abundant light that suggests how everyone is desperate to cool down (fittingly, the date ends with Barack and Michelle seeing Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing).
Part of Southside with You’s charm is how the conversation has actual dramatic heft. Barack and Michelle argue more than the characters in Before Sunrise, for example, because they do not have the luxury of a break from their everyday lives. There is a long, awkward scene where Barack chides Michelle for selling out, and she fights back just as hard. The subtext of this scene is fascinating: Barack always wants to test people, pushing them to their best possible selves, which would be a defining feature of his presidency. Michelle, on the other hand, sees through Barack from the start. She has his number, and he’s too arrogant to notice right away. Tanne shifts between their point of views, relying on Sumpter’s muted ferocity and Sawyers’ abundant charisma, so we can see why this first date led to marriage and everything beyond.
There is a complex, underplayed scene that elevates the film from mere romance into something more ambitious. After Barack and Michelle see Do the Right Thing – they’re both disturbed by racially-motivated violence that defines the climax – they run into a white person they both know. All the drama is in subtext, and manners mean more than dialogue. Barack and Michelle unpack the awkward moment, effortlessly switching between its personal, professional, racial, and political implications. Deft minds are at work, again suggesting the empathy and depth of thinking that would help them in political life. But the argument does not unfold like a civics-minded after school special. Romantic possibilities are a primary concern, too, and Tanne resolves it with silence. After an afternoon and evening together, Barack and Michelle quietly agree it’s best to see if their chemistry can be physical, too.
Part of me wonders whether Barack and Michelle Obama will ever watch Southside with You. I suspect that they will not, if only because I would cringe through a film about the first date with my wife. Tanne’s film is not for them: this is a film about American optimism. In a weird way, the specificity of the Barack and Michelle characters leads toward something universal: we’ve all tried to impress our crushes, or sat in silence through an awkward situation. We have not all done this while also explicitly thinking about how to be better Americans, global citizens, and members of our family. A key difference between Barack and Michelle is how they view family. He is angry about his father, while she adores hers. Fathers are revisited often Southside with You, and Michelle eventually offers her advice: Sawyers listens carefully, as if he knows this is the moment Barack fell in love. That’s the thing about husbands and wives: we love them for who they are, and because they’re our saviors, too.