In the summer of 1989, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson had their first date. It didn’t start out as a date, but by the end of that humid night — and by Barack’s sheer determination and charm — that’s what it eventually became. The electric courtship that followed, of course, would be written in our nation’s history.
That blinding, initial spark between the future POTUS and FLOTUS is the subject of writer-director Richard Tanne’s new film, “Southside With You,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday (Jan. 24). In it, a smooth-talking Barack (Parker Sawyers) woos his way into Michelle’s (Tika Sumpter) heart on their first date. It’s a sweet and sincere fictionalized take that, according to Tanne, is at least 90 percent accurate.
“This is not a date,” Michelle tells Barack, after he tricks her into going to an African art exhibit before a community-organizing meeting. (The spirited audience’s hushed laughter would say otherwise.) Along the way there are long, impassioned conversations — about work, Michelle’s unflinching ambition, her supportive family, Barack’s raw anger over his father, Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and even their favorite Stevie Wonder songs — that lead to the couple’s incredibly sweet first kiss over chocolate ice cream (Michelle’s favorite).
“Southside With You” succeeds because of its leads. Sumpter, who campaigned to play the role of Michelle Robinson before a script was even written, gives a phenomenal performance as the future First Lady. She asserts herself as a whip smart young woman with uncompromising ambition. And as an accomplished, up-and-coming corporate lawyer who has worked twice as hard for her success than her white, male colleagues, Michelle is deeply skeptical of the charming summer associate who takes a romantic interest in her. Though she initially views the relationship as a career liability, she — spoiler alert — does eventually warm up to his charms.
Meanwhile, Sawyers turns in an electric and intoxicating performance as a young Obama. Not only does he look the part (the resemblance is uncanny), but Sawyers also embodies Barack’s characteristic swag. From the moment we first see him — sitting in his chair, taking a drag from his cigarette — all eyes are on Sawyers, who plays Barack with such effervescent ease.
During the film’s community-organizing scene, we get to see Sawyers truly go to work, delivering a speech so riveting that you’d think POTUS wrote and delivered it himself. Here, and only here, do we see a spark of what’s to come for Barack Obama. Michelle’s suggestion that he go into politics over drinks is just the cheery on top.
It’s hard not to get chills watching Barack wax poetic to a poor and frankly frustrated community who just want something better for their children. Then, he was an inspiration to an underserved community in Chicago; now, he’s an inspiration to millions. Admittedly, it’s hard to distance Barack and Michelle from their historical legacies, but Tanne’s nuanced approach succeeds at making this film about the tempestuous beginning, not the happily ever after.
“Southside With You” will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” trilogy because at its core, it’s a lovely film about two charismatic people walking, talking and slowing falling in love over ice cream.