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.)
In addition to making each other laugh and think and swoon, the young Barack and Michelle occasionally make each other suspicious, or judgmental, or annoyed. When he shows up a few minutes late to pick her up (in the beat-up yellow Nissan with a rusted-through hole in the floor the first lady has affectionately described in speeches), Michelle crisply reminds her temporary colleague that, after all, it’s her job to notice if he arrives late—the way he did his first day of work. Ouch! But movie Barack, played with confidence and grace by the lanky Sawyers, soon makes clear that, like the real-life dude in the Oval Office, he’s not all that easy to ruffle. He performs a sneaky bait-and-switch as to the nature of their outing: The community meeting she’d agreed to attend at a South Side church won’t actually be starting until a bit later in the afternoon. Wouldn’t Michelle be willing to see a nearby art exhibit, grab lunch, and then attend the community event?
Michelle’s initial resistance to identifying this collegial meetup as a “date” gives rise to one of the movie’s best speeches: As the firm’s only black female associate, she reminds her laid-back colleague that she can’t afford to take any chances with her reputation. Later that same resistance becomes a running joke between the two of them, with her never-say-never suitor finally agreeing to call it a date when and only when she thinks it is.
After that exhibit of Afrocentric art (featuring the vibrant paintings of Ernie Barnes, which also figure in the gorgeous closing credits), there’s still time for sandwiches, sodas, and self-revelatory conversation in the park, followed by that long-promised community meeting where—to no one’s surprise except Michelle’s—her not-date gives an impromptu speech that turns a disgruntled roomful of residents from a nearby housing project into the kind of politically energized crowd we know Obama to be capable of inspiring.* It’s all very grassroots and sexy. Michelle is duly impressed at his off-the-cuff eloquence, but she also calls him out on his vanity in bringing her to an event at which he knew he was likely to get a chance to shine. From there they go on to share beers and favorite Stevie Wonder albums at a local bar (she’s a passionate advocate for Talking Book; he’s more of an Innervisions guy), then see perhaps the best-ever first-date movie for a pair of future White House integrators, Do the Right Thing.
One of the pleasures of the gentle and unpretentious Southside With You, along with its sprightly pacing and nicely evoked Chicago locations, is the film’s near-complete lack of traditional suspense. Knowing as we do how Michelle and Barack’s story turns out, we can be sure the developments in this mild-mannered romance will be small-scale and intersubjective, the kinds of shifts in perception of self and other that happen every day in real life and, on occasion, have the capacity to change us.
Over the course of one long summer afternoon, the outwardly swaggering, inwardly insecure Barack begins to suspect he’s found a woman who’s not only his intellectual equal but who sees parts of his character no one else yet has. Even more gradually, Michelle comes to realize that she is not only on an official date but in the presence of a man who may become the first great love of her life.
Sumpter and Sawyers are remarkably playful and loose in their evocations of figures so well-known it would be difficult to render them as anything but stiff impersonations. Creating an individual character is an especially tough job for Sawyers, given how familiar Obama’s speech patterns are to us and how closely the actor physically resembles a younger version of the president, right down to the small, round, prominent ears. Sumpter is much less physically similar to Michelle Obama—though like the first lady, she can pull together a look like nobody’s business. Michelle, on whom the movie both opens and closes, is first seen dressing and primping with a valedictorian’s attention to detail: peach blouse, tight white skirt, high platform wedges, not a hair out of place. Sumpter nails the first lady’s air of warm but reserved composure and the slow, careful way she enunciates her words, as if putting an extra measure of thought into choosing each phrase.
Even so, at times Michelle seems to be arriving at her future husband’s thoughts before he does. As Barack struggles over a stein of beer to put into words the exact shape of his still-formless ambitions, he talks about maybe wanting to write books or go back to community organizing when he completes his law degree. “Politics?” she asks, and he shrugs, answers “Maybe,” and quickly changes the subject. It’s those offhanded moments of understatement that make Southside With You feel less like salt in the wound of the Obamas’ looming departure than a welcome homeopathic balm.
*Correction, Aug. 30, 2016: This post originally misidentified painter Ernie Barnes as Ernie Jones. (Return.)