Southside With You (2016)

How the Obamas became the Obamas – Richard Tanne’s Southside With You is a charming biopic of their first date.

True Romance

by Alexa Dalby

Southside With You

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

On a warm summer day in Chicago in 1989, a future President and First Lady of the United States went on a first date. Or rather, Michelle Robinson insists it’s not a date, just two colleagues going to a meeting. Barack Obama, smitten already, has this day to win her over.

Though you may wonder how or why such a film ever came to be made, and the Obamas themselves claim to be baffled, writer/director Richard Tanne’s feature debut, a charming imagined dramatisation of how the Obamas became the Obamas is sweet, warm, clever and suffused in a golden glow.

Michelle at this time is Barack’s supervisor while he is a summer associate at her law firm. She is a high-achieving black woman striving to overcome prejudice in her pursuit of a top-level legal career. He is a deceptively laid-back graduate from Harvard Law School, at the crux of finding his future role in life. Together they’re two exceptional people getting to know each other as they explore their political views, hopes and dreams over the course of a day-long ‘date’.

We see Barack pick up Michelle from her parents’ home in his beaten-up old car with rust holes in the floor, take her to an exhibition of African art, a picnic in the park and eventually to the promised community meeting, where he is able to exhibit his oratory and concern for the underprivileged residents – perhaps why he made that the central point of their day. We see the seeds of his political career there.

As planned by Barack, the day is based around different aspects of black culture, which he and Michelle experience from the viewpoints of their very different upbringing – hers as an African-American growing up in Chicago, his US and Kenyan mixed-race outlook and upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia more cosmopolitan. From there they go to a bar and then to the cinema to see Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. All the time they are talking ceaselessly like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, exchanging ideas, correcting their false impressions about each other, finding out about each other’s lives and – we can assume – falling in love.

Parker Sawyers (Zero Dark Thirty) in his first leading film role is appropriately charismatic and cool as Barack Obama. The resemblance is striking and he conveys Obama’s relaxed physicality and measured way of speaking without mimicry. Tina Sumpter (Ride Along) is intelligent and dignified as Michelle Robinson, maintaining high standards in her personal and professional life and determined not to be impressed by her ‘cute and clever’ companion.

The screenplay is based on the real events and actual published quotes about that day and Tanne has woven them into a narrative that is charming and involving – even though we know how it turned out in the end.

Southside With You is released in the UK on 30 September 2016.

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