PARK CITY, Utah, Jan 25, (Agencies): It’s the sweet, romantic story of a first date — albeit the fictionalized first date of the couple who currently occupy the White House. “Southside With You,” the feature film based on Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson’s first date, debuted Sunday to a packed house at the Sundance Film Festival.
The movie tells the story of a single day in 1989 — the first day that summer associate, Harvard student Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), spent with his adviser, Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), a second-year associate with a Chicago corporate law firm. He believes he’s on a date. She believes she’s spending the day with a professional colleague. By the end of a day that moves from The Art Institute of Chicago to a picnic lunch to a community organizing meeting, sharing drinks and the then-newly released Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing,” they’re both on the same page.
Sawyer’s portrayal of Obama brings to the screen the unmistakable cadence and quick smile of the man who would become president. Sumpter shows a young Michelle as confident and determined, caring and kind.
Director and screenwriter Richard Tanne says though the movie is fictionalized, he researched what actually happened on the date from news articles and books. He filled in the conversation — “there wasn’t a note-taker on the date.”
Sumpter, who also co-produced the film, said her aim was simple: “Ultimately, I wanted to see someone who looked like me falling in love up there and I think everybody can relate to that. … It’s not Republican, Democrat or anything else. It’s just a love story.”
Sumpter said she was intrigued by the concept of the film when she saw the synopsis.
“Just the perspective — not seeing these two as we see them now, but from before. … It started because I was just inspired by the love story … and I wanted to see that kind of love up there. It’s not the normal rom-com. It’s real conversations of what might have been said,” she said.
The Obamas haven’t yet seen the film, but Tanne said he’s heard that they’re aware of it.
“They’re excited and they’re also a little baffled by its existence,” he said.
“We have to let go of judgment,” a young Barack Obama tells a group of frustrated community activists, encouraging them to place themselves in the shoes of those they’re up against. While most of the intended viewers for “Southside With You” are probably already inclined to listen to their president, it’s nice to think at least a few non-supporters in the audience might be moved by the spirit of empathy that suffuses this soulful and disarmingly romantic snapshot of Obama’s fateful first date with Michelle Robinson on a summer day in 1989 Chicago, long before either guessed they’d someday be president and first lady of the United States. On the surface a mellow and agreeably meandering “Before Sunrise”-style walkabout, Richard Tanne’s writing-directing debut deepens into a pointed, flowing conversation about the many challenges (and varieties) of African-American identity, the need for both idealism and compromise, and the importance of making peace with past disappointments in order to effect meaningful change in the future.
Tanne’s version of a well-known anecdote will likely generate and conceivably benefit from op-ed coverage of every possible slant, and conservative critics inclined to take an interest will surely accuse the movie of being a glorified campaign promo (albeit one arriving rather late for the campaign). Certainly it raises the question of whether a comparable date movie could be made about, say, the 1977 backyard barbecue where George W. Bush met Laura, or Mitt and Ann Romney’s 1965 prom night, and be executed with enough warmth and sensitivity to cut across partisan lines, or receive a fair hearing from left-leaning film critics. In any case, despite its unassuming modesty of scale, budget and commercial potential, “Southside With You” stands as something unique, even audacious in American independent movies: a fact-based presidential “prequel” that seeks to present two iconic world figures as convincing and relatable romantic leads.
And on that particular score, Tanne’s movie — toplined by the very well-cast Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers — is pretty much an unqualified success, building steadily over its 80-minute running time to the sort of cornball climax that, politics be damned, is all but assured to make you melt (whatever the picture’s post-Sundance fortunes, “the ice cream scene” is likely to become a cherished highlight). Mere hours before that moment, of course, Michelle (Sumpter) has already informed Barack (Sawyers) in no uncertain terms that “this is not a date.” A lawyer at the firm of Sidley Austin, she’s serving as his adviser while he’s a summer associate, and she’s merely agreed to accompany him to a Southside church where locals are gathering to discuss a stalled plan for a community center. Under the circumstances, Michelle insists, any implied romantic attachment would be inappropriate and send the wrong message at a firm where it’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a woman, let alone a black woman.
Barack, for his part, makes little secret of his personal interest, and after picking Michelle up in a beat-up car with a hole in the floor, he conveniently reveals they have a few hours to kill before the meeting and takes her to the Art Institute (which is presenting an African exhibition), followed by a picnic lunch of which she insists on paying her share. In its broadest strokes, then, “Southside With You” is a classic hard-to-get romance, in which his flirty charisma and her stubborn resistance supply some modest narrative tension as well as a telling glimpse into their respective histories. There are a few winks to things we already know: Michelle’s not-yet-famous sense of style is already blossoming, on the evidence of her light orange blouse and ivory skirt (the work of costume designer Megan Spatz), while Barack, who’s seen smoking and hiding cigarettes throughout, makes playful reference to “the cloudy haze” of his Hawaii years.
But the push-pull of their personalities turns out to run deeper, and in multiple directions. They swap polite thoughts on religion. Michelle describes how intently her dad pushed her and her older brother, Craig, to put their studies first, leading Barack to voice his anger with the absentee father who died in a car crash in Kenya some seven years earlier. He chastises her for sidelining her passion for pro bono work to make her name on higher-profile cases, while she calls out his own hypocrisy for giving up community organizing for Harvard Law. At any given moment, the concerns of racial progress and the struggle of representing black America in the best possible light are never far from their minds, whether they’re driving past black kids walking around the neighborhood or strolling past the Altgeld Gardens public-housing development (where Obama did his early organizing).
Later the two will go to see Spike Lee’s just-released “Do the Right Thing,” followed by a sidewalk conversation that lays bare some of the profound differences in how whites and blacks perceive issues of race and justice in America.
But it’s the earlier community meeting that becomes the movie’s extended centerpiece, striking very amusing notes early on as various women introduce an increasingly annoyed Michelle as “Barack’s woman” (“Finally, a sister!”). But when Barack takes the pulpit and alternately calms and rouses those assembled with his plea for consideration and empathy, the sequence deepens into an earnest but riveting demonstration of how effortlessly the young Obama commanded his audience, already displaying the natural eloquence and political savvy that would serve him well in the presidency.