Synopsis: An imagining of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date.
Southside with You aka Michelle & Barack’s First Date, would seem to be a must-see for fans of the Obamas, a sort of fairy tale imagining of their first date in 1989. The elements of the date are real (Movie Loon fact checked Ms. Obama’s Becoming), but incorporate outings into a super date.
Now, I have no wish to tag along on someone’s emerging coupledom IRL…but on cinema? Yes! I found myself weighing in; O, Michelle is just learning that Barack grew up in Hawaii…. Barack has no idea how much Michelle’s dad means to her etc… But I knew all these things.
Michelle is played by Tika Sumpter as smart, ambitious and wary of getting involved with someone from work, a Chicago law firm where she is an associate. Parker Sawyers’ Barack is smart, ambitious and determined to charm Ms. Michelle Robinson, his mentor for the summer at said law firm. Tika’s Michelle captures the former FLOTUS’ authority, but not quite her warm sociability. Or maybe I was just put off by the Cruella de Vil eyebrows chosen for her 1989 look. Sawyers’ gets Barack’s cadence and communicates a person poised for success.
When Michelle and Barack meet up one weekend to attend a community meeting together, Michelle reminds him that it is not a date. Barack says they have some time to kill – a few hours, actually – before the meeting over on the southside of Chicago is set to begin. Harumph, says Michelle. Keeping his charm at arm’s length, she consents to visit a local museum’s exhibit of African-American art. Barack is all smooth and erudite while they discuss the various paintings. But Michelle keeps her cool, not acting impressed.
I myself was actually enjoying their flirty banter as they perused the artworks and then strolled through a nearby park. Kudos to cinematographer (Pat Scola) for making Chicago look like a verdant kingdom on Lake Michigan, swathed in warm light. Yes, that is how it is maybe ten weeks a year. Otherwise it is buried in snow with brutal winds off of Lake Michigan whipping people about.
Michelle and Barack’s non-date is interrupted when they arrive at a church for a meeting of interested citizens who are trying to get a community center built in their neighborhood. First, some earnest organizer tells the attendees that their failure to get full funding will be rectified. But no one is convinced; that is until Barack stands before the group. He reminds them of the successes they had last summer when he was helping out and encourages them to stay the course. We can tell that Michelle is impressed, but she doesn’t give him the satisfaction of falling under his spell.
I was glad when the meeting was over so we could get back to the date. You can see for yourself where else they go and what they learn about each other. But it involves a fair amount, like Michelle learning that Barack was a Maui Wowie fan in high school, having an older white lady introduce herself like it’s 1890 (Pleased to make your acquaintance) and dessert talk where Michele tells Barack that her fave ice cream is chocolate.
Interestingly enough, the screenwriter and director of Southside with You, Richard Tanne is white. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a white guy directed it because most films are directed by white guys. But the whole thing was his project; the idea to explore the Obamas from a romantic angle and writing the script without coming off as tone deaf to the black community.
Only recently (circa 1980’s) has Hollywood given some real opportunities to talented black filmmakers to helm projects. Examples of new black voices telling black stories that come to mind are Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for Moonlight and director Ava DuVernay for Selma and When They See Us. And while Tanne is not a black voice, Tika Sumpter is a producer on Southside with You. As a collaborative effort, Tanne, Sumpter and Sawyers have succeeded at making a smart, sparkly romance.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the Obamas have seen Southside with You. I bet they have. I also wondered what Michelle & Barack’s favorite ice cream flavors really are… conflicting answers online. Perhaps it’s classified info. Maybe somebody should make a movie about that!
P.S. Here’s a short video of the Obamas talking about their first date.